South Park, Israel-style: The Reclaiming of the Ramon Crater

An ambitious project to renew a once-heavily quarried area is now nearing completion. The sprawling new national park taking shape there is drawing both praise and criticism fromlovers of the desert landscape.

Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

A strip of red earth, like a slice of tomato in a sandwich, accompanies us all along our way in the cliffs abutting the dirt road. It is a narrow line, not more than 10 centimeters wide, but it is eye-catching and easy to spot.

Ben Drori, the Nature and Parks Authority inspector assigned to the Ramon Crater area, points to the red layer as we drive. It curves about and its height changes; in several places it is at eye level, but in others it soars to dozens of meters above us or descends into channels below us. In some places, the red layer is exposed where a stone scarp has been created, the result of quarrying or mining.

Our tour begins at Route 40, which bisects the Ramon Crater and ends near the Be’erot campsite, about six kilometers east. Drori is now nearing completion of a project of colossal dimensions. Never before, he says, has an endeavor of such a scope been undertaken in Israel. Its official name is “Colors of Ramon National Park” and its main significance is that it involves renewal of the landscape in a wide-ranging area that for decades was quarried without consideration for the environment. As Drori puts it, the challenge is reclaiming the ecological system in the abandoned quarries of the Ramon Crater.

The earthworks, the most difficult stage of the project, are nearly done, and the first visitors will soon be able to tour the site. Afterward, Drori and his colleagues will focus on improvement of the route that weaves through it. The national park will be dedicated several months from now.

Meanwhile, the very dusty Drori smiles nonstop, despite the extreme heat, and is pleased when I am able to spot the reddish layer in the ridge that appears before us. Every so often, we cross the path of large yellow trucks laden high with earth. A great deal of earth is moving along the length of this gritty dirt road. A total of 1.5 million cubic meters of earth and quarried rocks are now being transported in the eastern part of the crater. A tract of 2,500 dunams ‏(625 acres‏) is undergoing intensive treatment. The trucks are doing the opposite of what they did in the past: They are now returning the earth to the open pits to make the area look as it did originally, decades ago.

For decades, the entire region served as a mining area, and the intensive quarrying activity drove away visitors and tourists. The quarries – for minerals and materials used in construction – began to operate in the Ramon Crater during the 1950s, when Mitzpeh Ramon was founded as a mining town. Most of its residents earned their livelihood from work in the quarries. But by the beginning of the 21st century, the last quarry in the Ramon Crater had ceased operation.

What was left behind in the area were thousands of huge pits, a damaged landscape and broad stretches of territory in need of reclamation. The NPA, with full funding from the government’s Quarry Rehabilitation Fund, began working in 2006 toward reclamation of the landscape in the eastern Ramon Crater.

Dr. Yoav Avni, a geologist who lives in Mitzpeh Ramon, described the situation rather succinctly: “For 50 years, they pulled the guts out of the land without a thought to the future. Now it has to be reclaimed.”

Zvika Ziv, the secretary of the Energy and Water Resources Ministry’s Quarry Rehabilitation Fund, explains that they are now in the final stage of the huge project of which the park is a part − the largest one in which the fund has ever taken part − which has been going on for seven years. It has involved the investment of approximately NIS 25 million in reclamation of the crater’s quarries.

Some NIS 12 million alone have been invested in Colors of Ramon, which is the jewel in the crown of the effort, Ziv says. “We transformed a region with a completely damaged landscape in which industries worked for decades into a tourism zone complete with campsites and hiking paths,” he notes.

Standing atop a low hill, Drori asks me, “Can you tell the difference?” I have a hard time understanding what he is talking about. “You see, if I do good landscape reclamation,” Drori explains, “you won’t notice it. I have to break the mold that the eye sees. It’s sculpting of a natural landscape, but with trucks.”

Later, during the tour, I will learn to differentiate between the original swathes of land, which have remain unchanged, and entire slopes that extend tens and even hundreds of meters in length, which have been reclaimed and renewed. This includes pits that have been refilled and soil that has been scattered on either side of the hiking trail in an effort to restore at least some of the natural character of the landscape, before the quarrying began here. One can differentiate between the “seams” that run between the virgin land and the restored areas by the varying sizes and colors of the stones and earth.

“Our objective,” Drori explains as we walk toward a high stone wall, “is to have the visitor observe the various colorful stone strata. The intention is, after all, to bring in a visiting public whom we wish to expose to as many geological phenomena as possible, to a landscape that appears to have been relatively undisturbed.”

The effort was invested into achieving two goals: to impart a natural appearance to the area and to take into account and preserve the desert region with respect to erosion processes and loss of soil and earth. The big test, Drori says, will come after the first big flash flood.

Avni, the geologist, stresses the importance of follow-up on the reclamation activities, in order to learn what was done correctly and what can be improved. Avni stresses that this is not the sort of project that will end on the day the national park is dedicated, but a learning process that will continue for years to come. Right now, he is satisfied with the results.

Additional features are being planned for the national park, such as a main access road into the crater, construction of a pavilion where visitors will receive maps and information, development of a lake that would be fed by the groundwater tables, lookout points, hiking trails, bike riding paths and also preservation of some of the mining installations for the purpose of documentation.

‘Enslaved by the crater’

The visionary Emanuel Mazor, a professor of geology, is the founding father of the national geological park in the Ramon Crater. At his office at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, he lays out for me brochures and publications from the past 40 years, when he conceived his vision of establishing the geological park.
“In 1953,” Mazor relates, “I was a young student who was part of the first geological expedition to the Ramon Crater. It was the first time we looked at the crater with comprehending eyes. Ever since then, I’ve been in love, enslaved by the crater.”

In a fascinating discussion, Mazor explains the logic behind establishment of the Colors of Ramon National Park. “In an area like the Ramon Crater, there is an interest in preserving certain areas that are in a virginal state, and directing the public to other defined areas. In any event, there was tremendous destruction in the area of the quarries. So we said, let’s turn those areas into a place where the bulk of the public could visit. This would significantly reduce the burden placed on the other areas of the crater.”

Although he is pleased by the park project, Mazor does harbor criticism for the way in which things have been done. “The people building the park are excellent people, but in my opinion they’re going too far. They have a great deal of money coming in from the Quarry Rehabilitation Fund, and the problem, as often occurs in Israel, is that they don’t know when to stop. The proper degree of treatment of the land is the secret of the entire project’s success, and I have my doubts if that’s being done today in the correct amount.

“To my mind, there is overspending here and a bit of having fallen in love with the work, with the project itself. I don’t think you have to move such large quantities of earth, and certainly not bring in soil from great distances to fill the pits. It’s important to fill pits with soil that’s found nearby. The whole matter should be a bit simpler and more modest,” he says.

Mazor, now 79, sees the realization of a much broader vision involving inclusion of an extensive region that he calls “the land of the craters” as one large totality. Aside from the Ramon Crater, it also includes the Large Crater and the Small Crater and settlements in the region such as Yeruham, Dimona and others. As he envisions it, the so-called land of the craters would be an open-air geology museum that would expose visitors to the nature, history and other aspects of the landscape. He reiterates several times the idea that, “We’re talking a lot, proposing things, and in the end, something from all this is also happening out in the field. It’s impossible, after all, to expect that everything will happen, most certainly not at the same time, most certainly not exactly as we had hoped.”

Avni, who works for the Israel Geological Survey, concurs with Mazor that the great advantage of Colors of Ramon lies in the creation of a central “core” area in the crater that would attract most visitors and be relatively easy to maintain. “Colors of Ramon,” Avni emphasizes, “will present to visitors several geological strata, but will not teach them the entire subject. To do this better, Mazor’s vision of ‘the land of the craters’ needs to be further developed; there needs to be a larger scale, regional geo-park that could in the future be included on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.”

Nevertheless, there is reason for concern vis-a-vis the park project, Avni adds: “We must forge a type of coexistence between the crater and Mitzpeh Ramon. The city must be built away from the crater, and today there is a danger of construction too close to the edge of it. Also there has been neglect of the promenade along the cliff, and in general there is a lack of a clear environmental agenda.”

What is now needed is a clear, ethical code of proper construction, mainly of hotels and residential neighborhoods along the crater cliffs, he says. A code that would prevent the sorts of errors that have been committed in the past.

Romantics vs. fences

Ilan Dvir, who owns the Alpaca Farm near Mitzpeh Ramon, has lived in the area for 25 years, has a finger in every pie related to the crater, and has strong views on the subject.

“Renewal of an area that was destroyed and its transformation into a tourist attraction is a positive move, but it’s important to remember that the greatest value, the true charm of the crater, lies in its being a primordial landscape. Colors of Ramon will never be a place with primordial magic. I hope they won’t make it into an overly commercial site,” he says.

“It’s obvious to me that there are different target audiences, and the park will suit some of them, but it’s not a place that sweeps me up or gets me excited ... The NPA has a tendency to direct all of us into closed and fenced-off areas with paid admission, while I want to get out into the open, uncontaminated areas. The way I see it, there’s not a great deal of charm in a place that thousands of people have already hiked or driven through. My sense is that they’re fencing us − the romantics who want to wander about − in. Anyone who goes beyond it, even if he’s lived here for decades, is depicted as a criminal and feels persecuted by the park rangers and the authorities. It’s not a pleasant feeling.”

Dvir describes himself as “a missionary who wants to pass on his love for the land, this immense beauty, to other people. There’s no logic to making people like me feel persecuted. It’s not logical that when I wanted to take photographs for my book about the crater ‏(“The Ramon Crater: The Mountain that Vanished − A Window on Wondrous Worlds,” self-published‏), I would only go out into the field on Sundays, because I knew the rangers would be at their weekly meeting in Be’er Sheva [and wouldn’t bother me].”

One solution Dvir proposes is to develop a network of hiking trails of varying difficulty that would interest different kinds of visitors who want to get to know the crater and enjoy it. “Right now, those who love being out in the field feel like we are hunted prey. It has come to the absurd situation in which we are opposing expansion of the preserve’s territory. Where else did you hear of such a thing? We tried to prevent the preserve’s expansion and failed, but it tells you something about the feeling that the preserve is not beneficial to those who love the crater.”

Several hours after pulling off Route 40 onto the Colors of Ramon route, I am standing next to Ben Drori at the edge of a large and nearly dried-up pool. “This is one of the old quarry pits that we decided to leave in its present form. In the winter, rainwater collects here and people will be able to enjoy this sight − water in the heart of the desert.”

A few dozen meters away is a white wild donkey that is staring us down, waiting for us to leave the pool so that it can drink. As we begin to drive west on the dirt road, the donkey walks up to the water’s edge. Drori is pleased, and quips, “Even the wild donkeys understand that this pit has to remain as is, part of the crater’s landscape.”

Two tales, several opinions

The visitors center located in Mitzpeh Ramon along the lip of the crater next to Route 40 has been closed for the past two years. Oshra Gabai, the center’s director, explains that renovation and development work there is nearing completion, ahead of its reopening in early 2013.

The refurbished facility will highlight two themes: the creation of the Ramon Crater and the commemoration of the life of astronaut Ilan Ramon, who died in the failed reentry of the Columbia space shuttle on February 1, 2003.

Visitors on the center’s 90-minute tour ‏(which will have to be coordinated in advance, and will be offered for a fee‏) will first pass through a hall in which Ramon’s life and accomplishments will be described. They will then ascend to another hall from which they will be able to look out over the crater and receive explanations of how the area’s unique geomorphological phenomena were formed. Satellite photos will be used for both parts of the exhibit.

The site is operated by the NPA. The Mitzpeh Ramon regional council took part in planning and execution of the project, which was funded by the government as part of its commemoration of Ilan Ramon. The astronaut’s widow, Rona Ramon, actively participated in the entire process, says Gabai.

For his part, Prof. Emanuel Mazor says with a smile that he hopes local schoolchildren will not get the impression, heaven forbid, that the crater is named for Ilan Ramon. He is concerned that the visitors’ center will be too showy, but hastily adds that he is grateful to all bodies involved in the effort because they love the crater no less than he does.

Avni says there is an improper juxtaposition here of two important things − commemoration of Ramon and the history of the crater − and fears that the linkage between them will be damaging.

Dvir, of the Alpaca Farm, longs for the kind of center that existed 20 years ago, when it played an appropriate role in spotlighting the local environment: “If they install a spaceship there and screen films, it’s liable to convey the message that the crater itself isn’t interesting enough. But it’s a fascinating place that contains no end of stories, so why do we have to display it with the help of a spaceship? I’d even exaggerate a bit and say I’m afraid that some pupils who are not particularly attentive might conclude after their visit that the crater was formed by the fall to earth of the space shuttle, or maybe by meteors from outer space.”

Gabai clarifies the issue of the astronaut and his connection to the place: “When Ilan Ramon, who flew a great deal over the Negev as an Israel Air Force pilot, decided to Hebraize his name [from Wolferman], he chose Ramon because of his love for the crater, which bore this name many years before he did.”

Construction in the Ramon Crater.Credit: Moshe Gilad
Overlooking Makhtesh Ramon (Ramon Crater), a unique geological formation in the heart of the Negev.



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