Late Bloomers: Rare Ecosystem Found Under Hitherto Off-limits Military Compound

Zafrir Rinat
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Zafrir Rinat

Although Israel might be small in terms of territory, it has a considerable number of areas to which the general public has no access. These are areas occupied by installations of the defense establishment; happily for environmental activists, these lands cannot be built on and thus their rare specimens of nature can be protected. But what happens when these activists become accustomed not to trouble the defense establishment too much?

The case of the former Israel Military Industries site in Ramat Hasharon shows that, as a result of this attitude, the activists simply do not know what exists in the field and are thus unaware of the importance of protecting it. When they are roused to action, they discover that they have already missed their chance.

In recent months, urban planner Zeev Amit has been acting as the Interior Ministry’s examiner in an effort to determine the public’s objections to Master Plan Mem-Shin 1. According to this plan, which was drawn up by the Israel Lands Authority ‏(which is the new name of the Israel Lands Administration‏), a massive construction project will be carried out on thousands of acres in this site, which the IMI is scheduled to vacate within the next few years. This is one of the largest building projects in Israel’s history − with more than 20,000 housing units, the paving of new roads, the laying of new rail lines and the construction of commercial areas measuring millions of square meters.

The issue that has concerned environmentalist organizations and local residents up until recently related to the master plan − namely, how to develop the area and to deal with its extensive land and water pollution. However, in the wake of a survey of nature specimens that was conducted in the area five years ago and which was initiated by the ILA, it emerges that the site contains ecological assets of great value.

Ecologist Ron Frumkin has surveyed the area for the ILA and has discovered rare species of flora that are characteristic of natural hamra, a loamy red soil that is unique to this area, or coarse sand. These species are in danger of extinction and include, for example, hypocheris glabra, gagea dayana and lupinus luteus ‏(yellow lupin‏). One of the most exciting discoveries was the presence of trifolium billardierei, which is is characteristically found on hamra and which grows in isolated areas in Israel and southern Lebanon; this flower has not been seen in Israel in the past 50 years. However, these findings were not what drove the environmentalist organizations to undertake action. For years, the defense establishment has accustomed them to the fact that access to the IMI site in Ramat Hasharon is limited. Apparently, this has also held true for the various planning bodies, as Amit pointed out in the discussion that was held this month and which dealt with nature conservation.

“No planning body checked this defense site and stated that measures must be taken to ensure that there are solid legal foundations for nature conservation in this or that area,” says Amit, “within the context of a national afforestation master plan or within the context of a national master plan for nature reserves and national parks.” He points out that, in contrast with the IMI site in Ramat Hasharon, in areas that include military firing ranges, including those in central Israel, assurances have been given that a portion of the land would be defined as an area on which construction activity is forbidden.

The agency that has been charged by the state with the task of protecting the rare specimens of nature in the IMI site is the Israel Nature and Parks Authority; however, the first time its personnel visited the site was only a few weeks ago. “We also make mistakes and miss opportunities,” admits Uri Naveh, deputy director of the authority’s central district. “As a public body, we should have been involved at an earlier stage.”

When he appeared before Amit, Naveh noted that in Israel today, there are almost no nature reserves that have hamra soil and the unique natural specimens indigenous to that kind of soil. The largest area that has the highest quality of hamra soil is the IMI site. “We are not opposed to the building project,” he adds. “In our opinion, a major effort must be made in order to protect more areas that contain rare species.”

In discussions with Amit, ILA representatives explained that the overall master plan would be implemented through more detailed plans in several “land cells.” These plans would take account of rare specimens of nature. Thus, certain lands would be set aside in which construction activity would be prohibited or, alternatively, flora would be transferred from areas designated as construction sites to protected areas, through the collection of seeds. “This is an activity that is already being carried out in other sites designated for construction projects,” Frumkin explained to Amit.

Nevertheless, INPA experts have noted that, in certain areas, the land structure cannot be preserved because the area might have to be vacated in order to purify it from the pollution created in the past by the IMI.

Naveh is uncertain whether the transfer of rare flowers by means of collecting their seeds will in fact be able to save these rare species, which have managed to survive on the IMI site. He notes that these flowers require special soil conditions and that, given the fact that most areas with hamra soil have been utilized for construction or agriculture, it is understandable why the flowers are now so rare. Naveh: “We must do everything possible to protect these flowers on the sites where they are located today.” 

The entrance to the IMI Ramat Hasharon facility.Credit: Alon Ron
Trifolium billardierei.Credit: Ron Frumkin

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