A record 20 new nature reserves and national parks have been declared over the past year, setting a 50-year record, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority announced in its year’s end summary of triumphs and tribulations.
But with no functioning government — Israel’s third elections within a year will take place in March — there is uncertainty over the funds that will be needed for these and other projects next year, director Shaul Goldstein said Tuesday in an end-of-year roundup to journalists. He is set to meet with Finance Ministry officials next week.
INPA is a government body charged with preserving nature, landscapes and heritage. It runs national parks, usually around archaeological and other heritage sites, as well as nature reserves.
Over the past year, INPA has agreed to take responsibility for most of the country’s hiking paths from various government ministries, and has focused more on connecting people to nature than just on nature itself, Goldstein said.
This has included starting work to ensure that hikers have access to water along the Israel Trail and at camping sites; revising and clarifying guidelines on the use of camping burners and barbecues and the picking of wild herbs; erecting additional campsites; working with the Transportation Ministry to provide more public transportation to out-of-the-way locations; and introducing new signage with details about each trail. In addition, a new INPA Israel Pass can now be purchased at Ben Gurion Airport and the Ramon Airport just outside Eilat.
Several camping sites have been equipped with improved facilities, including prayer spaces and Torah scrolls for Sabbath-observant visitors, while still remaining open to the general public, Goldstein went on. To make campsites more accessible in general, the authority now offers more services online, including the reservation of tents, mattresses and firewood. The authority is currently exploring the legal implications of forbidding single-use plastic on its property.
The year 2019 saw 13,251,258 visitors to INPA parks and reserves, a rise of five percent compared with last year, due mainly to an increase in visitors from overseas.
“Today, most visitors come independently rather than in groups,” Goldstein said. “Tourists from overseas don’t know what firing zones are, or flash floods. They don’t realize how hot it can get and that you have to take three to four liters of water when you go into the desert. We want to get to a situation where every visitor is safe and knows what he or she is doing.”
During the past year, 14 people died while out hiking, up from 11 last year. The reasons included drowning in prohibited bathing areas, falling, suicide, dehydration and vehicle accidents. The INPA took part in 479 rescues.
Among overseas tourists, the most popular sites, in descending order, were Masada, Caesarea, Qumran by the Dead Sea, Banias and Ein Gedi. Among Israelis, the top five were Caesarea, Ashkelon, Banias, the Sachne Park (Gan Hashlosha), and Yarkon-Tel Afeq.
Goldstein also revealed that thanks to the creation of a special maritime unit in May last year and the large-scale issuing of fishing licenses, illegal fishing has declined dramatically.
Fire-damaged land up nearly 250 percent
Goldstein said that a nearly 250% increase in the amount of land damaged by fires this year (67,200 dunams, or 16,600 acres) resulted from military training or arson. Land damaged by fires in the Gaza-adjacent region in the south halved, compared with 2018.
On the state of wildlife, Goldstein noted that populations of Palestine mountain gazelles and Negev dorcas gazelles remain stable, at 4,212 and 1,435 individuals respectively. Acacia gazelles are up from 22 last year to 31.
Among predatory birds, 11 vultures were born as part of a special breeding project. However, eight out of 10 vultures that were poisoned on the Golan Heights earlier this year died.
The Sea Turtle Rescue Center in Michmoret, meanwhile, rescued 144 injured turtles during the year, of which 75 were rehabilitated and returned to the sea.
The center’s director Dr. Yaniv Levy told journalists that some turtles had arrived with head injuries caused by boats or windsurf boards, with a major cause of accidents being plastic construction industry bags whose threads entangle the turtles and can lead to amputation of fins.
During the egg laying season, 231 nests were identified along the coast.
Despite funding worries, record number of national parks declared
The 20 new nature reserves and national parks declared during 2019 will cover 241,822 dunams (60,000 acres). The declarations, which determine the land use, mark the end of several years of work consulting with government ministries and acquiring the necessary permits.
Among notable new additions to the INPA’s roster of roughly 400 reserves and 100 national parks is a reserve that follows the Meitzar streambed that runs from the southern Golan Heights to the Yarmuk Valley. During the winter, it offers the sight of a nine-meter (30 foot) waterfall which fills a pond that remains full through to the end of summer. The area is home to large mammals and birds, such as wild boar, deer, eagles and vultures.
The 100,373 dunam (25,000 acre) Rosh Hanikra-Achziv marine reserve covers a 15-kilometer (nine mile) strip of Mediterranean Sea running parallel to Israel’s northernmost coast and reaching depths of 1,000 meters (1,100 yards) or more. Combining several habitats, it includes underwater caves, sandstone formed out of fossilized sand dunes and a breeding area rich in species of fish.
The Mount Tabor Nature Reserve in the Lower Galilee has been expanded and will now cover 22,548 dunams, or 5,600 acres. Parts of the Tabor Stream flow year-round thanks to the Ein Shahal spring. In springtime, plant species such as anemone and the distinctive blue lupine bloom in abundance between the pistachio, almond and plum trees.
In the south of the country, a new reserve at the small Ramon Crater (38,400 dunams, or 9,500 acres) offers a stunning variety of rock colors, from white and grey to brown, yellow, red and purple, depending on iron oxide content. The crater, one of five in Israel, connects populations of deer from the Judean and central Negev deserts and provides nesting for rare vultures and other birds of prey in danger of extinction. Already popular with hikers, it also includes a section of the north-to-south Israel Trail.
A fifth reserve, covering 15,576 dunams (4,000 acres) of Samarian hills, is a botanists’ paradise in spring, its open habitat home to a profusion of herbaceous plants such as daffodils, sea squills, asphodel, cyclamen and crocus. In relatively pristine condition due to its other status as an army firing range (entrance is only by prior coordination), it also provides a habitat for deer, foxes, quail, blue rock thrush and other birds.