Reporter's notebook

Nature and Parks Authority proposes gradual reopening of parks, nature reserves

Authority says that under current Health Ministry restrictions and while maintaining highest level of hygiene, it could already host up to 70,000 visitors a day

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Empty: The Ein Afek Nature Reserve has been closed to visitors since March 18 because of coronavirus. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
Empty: The Ein Afek Nature Reserve has been closed to visitors since March 18 because of coronavirus. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority is calling for the gradual reopening of its nature reserves and national parks which have been shuttered for over a month to prevent people from congregating in the great outdoors.

The authority faces losses of tens of millions of shekels this year due to restrictions against people leaving their homes or visiting parks.

The INPA runs some 400 nature reserves and 100 more developed national parks, many of which include camping facilities, and which are especially popular during the spring, when families, hikers and others take advantage of the warming weather and still lush landscapes fed by winter rains.

INPA director Shaul Goldstein said that even while maintaining Health Ministry social distancing and hygiene guidelines, the properties could gradually host up to 70,000 visitors daily — roughly the numbers that turn up at weekends — with 2,000 to 3,000 campsite stays per night.

The organization has spoken to the National Security Council, which is managing the rollback of restrictions, suggesting that during the first stage, entry would be restricted to a number of visitors who would pre-book time slots and be given health checks before entry. Visitors would only be allowed in open areas, and would have to maintain social distancing, with INPA staff ensuring compliance.

Shaul Goldstein, the director of Israel Nature and Parks Authority, is pictured outside the open-air auditorium at Masada ahead of the premiere of ‘From Sunset to Sunrise’ on March 19, 2019. (Johanna Chisholm/Times of Israel)

Visitor numbers already started to drop in the middle of February because of virus concerns.

Under normal conditions, some 22 million international and local visitors flock to the parks and reserves each year, generating some NIS 230 million ($65 million) annually.

Goldstein told the Times of Israel that while he could not yet put an exact figure on it, losses this year would certainly run into tens of millions of shekels which, he said, he was sure that the Finance Ministry would cover.

While revenues have been down, the lack of visitors has given researchers an opportunity to view changes to flora and fauna, including birds and animals entering areas they would normally avoid during the day, and the disappearance of some species that depend on scraps left behind by humans.

A deer spotted at the at the Gamla Nature Reserve’s Byzantine gate. (Itzik Cohen Tsedek/Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

In order to monitor this properly, as well as to count birds and animals, check on their health, explore how far they have been wandering and observe breeding, a number of sites last week erected cameras. “Perhaps we’ll make some changes on the basis of these findings,” Goldstein told the Times of Israel.

Included in this research is the Ein Afek Nature Reserve in northern Israel, which focuses on marsh habitats, where workers were erecting cameras on Thursday.

Until the results are known, staff can only report what they have seen.

Two eggs laid by a Eurasian stone-curlew in the middle of the picnic area, Ein Afek Nature Reserve. (Tamar Ovdat)

Israel is home to both Cape and European hares, and, unusually, one of them whizzed past Director Tamar Ovdat before she could say Jack Rabbit. There was great excitement when two eggs laid by a Eurasian stone-curlew were found in the middle of the picnic area. (They have since disappeared, possibly having been eaten). The mandrake ducks have been bravely exploring the walkways.

The iconic wooden walkway at Ein Afek Nature Reserve. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

But it is not known whether the activity of other birds has changed, as the volunteer who usually comes to temporarily trap and ring them, has not been allowed to visit because of coronavirus restrictions.

The lack of visitors has also seen the virtual disappearance of crows and mina birds, according to Deputy Director Danielle Heitner Richtman. During normal periods, these birds, as well as the Egyptian mongooses that live in the reserve, gather around the trash cans to pick up tasty morsels left by the public.

Also missing from view are the catfish, which usually gather close to the walkway in the hope of getting tidbits whenever people pass through.

Marshes are important habitats for flora and fauna.

During the early part of the 19th century, there were many marshes in coastal and northern areas of Israel, prime areas for malaria-carrying mosquitoes, most of which were drained by Jewish farmers and converted into agricultural land.

The largest, and best known, was in the Hula Valley in the northeast of the country. There, the Hula lake and the swamp to its north were drained in the late 1950s and converted into fields. A small section was later re-flooded and is today a popular site among bird watchers and tourists.

Gray Cranes at the Agamon Hula Lake in the Hula valley in northern Israel, November 16, 2017. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

According to Between Ruin and Restoration: An Environmental History of Israel, edited by Daniel E. Orenstein, Char Miller and Alon Tal, Israel had several other wetlands which were generally avoided by the Arab population because of their mosquitoes, allowing the nascent Jewish population to buy them cheaply and then drain them.

The Hadera and Petah Tikva swamps were drained at the end of the 19th century and most of the rest — including the Zevulun Valley and the Kebaa’ra swamp near Ma’agan Michael, were drained between the 1920s and 1940s.

The swamps at the Ein Afek Nature Reserve. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The Ein Afek (Afek Spring) Nature Reserve, located in the Zevulun Valley, close to Israel’s northern coast, between Haifa and the Western Galilee, contains one of the last vestiges of marshland, illustrating not only the way much of the country once looked, but what is happening to so many open spaces in Israel today.

It is bordered by a main road to the west and fishponds, reservoirs and fields to the east. Now, a new neighborhood of the city of Kiryat Bialik is going up, literally next to the reserve’s entrance gate, with the first families due to move in in August.

New residential buildings just opposite the entrance to the Ein Afek Nature Reserve. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Saved from development by the high level of its groundwater and its subterranean springs — the swamps drain slowly into the Naaman River — the reserve is home to softshell turtles, Balkan terrapins, porcupines, jackals, wild boar and rarely seen swamp cats. Migrating birds, such as pelicans and storks, visit, although in far smaller numbers than those seen in the Hula Valley.

The reserve offers 1.5 kilometers of paths, much of them lined with thick reeds, berry-bearing bramble and fig trees.

Over one stretch of water, the path takes the form of an iconic, suspended, winding wooden trail.

The site boasts an impressive renovated Crusader-era flour mill (the area served as the agricultural heartland of Crusader Acre), an archaeological tel, and a small group of water buffalo.

The renovated flour mill at the Ein Afek Nature Reserve. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Endeavoring to preserve species of flora and fauna in danger of extinction, the reserve has special plots to acclimatize some 40 endangered plants and is part of a project to breed and reintroduce into the wild, waterfowl such as Ferruginous duck and fish such as the Yarkon bream.

The reserve, literally a backyard for Kiryat Bialik’s residents and schools, is normally visited by around 150,000 people between November and mid-May, with a peak last year of 4,000 in a single day.

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