Rare Sandstone Ridges on Israel’s Coast Endangered by Developers

New atlas of special habitats near coast proposes ways to save kurkar areas.

Zafrir Rinat

The kurkar ridges make up one of the most important, special landscapes along the Israel’s Mediterranean coast, but based on a recent, comprehensive mapping of them, only a tenth of their area has some form of protected status preventing development and construction. Half the area of the ridges is already within zones that have been designated by national master plans for development.

The new mapping is being published as part of the “Kurkar Atlas” prepared by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel in cooperation with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Environmental Protection Ministry. The Jewish National Fund and an environmental planning firm were also involved in the project, which will be exhibited for the first time at a conference next month in Nes Tziona, where the kurkar hills make up part of a national park.

The kurkar ridges in Israel run almost parallel to the coast, and make up a unique ecosystem for plants and animals. In some places, such as near Nes Tziona and Rishon Letzion, they make up the last remaining large. open spaces available to city residents.

The new mapping shows these kurkar ridges make up 93,000 dunams (23,250 acres) of land. Two thirds of this area is in the south, much of it near the Gaza Strip. Some of the kurkar is mixed with sand dunes and loam soil in the Sharon region in the center of the country, or nearby.

Only 9 percent of these ridges are included today inside official nature reserves and national parks, where they receive full protection. The rest, over 90 percent, are exposed in varying degrees to the threat of construction and development, and face damage as well from off-road vehicles or illegal dumping of waste. Half of the kurkar regions are found within areas zoned in the National Master Plan for Development 35 (Tama 35) for construction. In recent years such a kurkar ridge near Nes Tziona was destroyed to build a new residential community named Irus.

A third of the kurkar area is still covered by woodlands, but these are mostly trees planted by the JNF and they have changed the natural character of the ridges, and often even caused environmental damage. About half of the original kurkar area is still in its natural state, though most of that is still not inside areas protected from development.

“The remaining kurkar areas in Israel are unique habitats and of great importance, both because of their landscape and ecological value, and their importance as natural areas for recreational and vacation activities,” says Anat Horowitz Harel, head of the research and planning unit at SPNI’s Open Landscape Institute. “These habitats are suffering from a continuous threat because they are in areas of high demand, and therefore we must take steps to protect them,” she said.

To the rescue?

The kurkar atlas includes a list of recommendations to protect these areas. A key proposal is to expand the areas defined as nature reserves and national parks. Another recommendation is to guarantee that in those areas already zoned for development under the National Master Plan, the unique status of the kurkar ridges will be taken into account to prevent construction there as much as possible.

As to the Sharon region, where there are small nature reserves including some of this habitat, the green organizations propose to preserve further areas around these reserves by making them ecological barrier zones, such as agricultural land, to separate the reserves from urban areas. Another suggestion is to use money from the Israel Lands Authority’s Fund for Preserving Open Areas to purchase the kurkar regions under private ownership, and turn them into nature reserves.

The editors of the atlas also recommend using various methods to manage the kurkar regions. One proposal is use them as pasture for sheep to thin out the vegetation. One interesting idea is to raise bees there. Because of the bounty of wildflowers on the kurkar ridges, honey beekeepers often place their hives there. The problem is these bees also compete with local insects for the nectar, so it is recommended the beekeepers consult with ecologists from the Nature and Parks Authority before placing their hives.

Another recommendation is to keep off-road vehicles off the ridges. The Rishon Letzion municipality has already started strictly enforcing such rules in the national park inside the city, installing cameras to catch those violating the ban and sending out municipal inspectors to the site to stop and fine them.

Kurkar, as it is known in the Middle East, is a coastal sandstone, technically known as eolianite, a somewhat rare form of sand-rock that forms only in coastal regions, when sand and other sediments, such as limestone and other carbonates, turn to stone. It requires specific conditions such as a warm climate with distinct rainy and dry seasons, relatively high temperatures and onshore winds. The most extensive formations are found in Australia.