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Birthday Reflections: What If SPNI Didn’t Exist?

Iris Hann, SPNI CEO
November 11, 2018

SPNI Celebrating 65 years

Iris Hann, SPNI CEOSixty-five years ago this month (November 6 to be exact), the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel was recognized as an NGO under Ottoman Law.  Every day since, this incredible organization has been active in a wide variety of research, education and advocacy activities, leading the charge in the protection and preservation of Israel’s unique nature. 

Though Israel is a small country, protecting its environment and promoting sustainable living is a very complex task considering the rate at which the population – among the densest of all Western countries – has grown over the last six decades, and how quickly this booming population consumes natural resources.  Additionally, the prosperity of Israel’s nature is of global significance, so our conservation efforts ripple far beyond our borders.  We are the only country with such a combination (quite the tall order!), but we tackle this unique challenge head on, doing everything we can to promote real environmental change and instill an eco-conscience in Israeli society.

Birthdays provide us with a great opportunity to reflect on our accomplishments.  In our case, it’s incredibly gratifying to recognize what we have already achieved and heartening to realize how much more is possible.  

At a recent meeting at the Har Ha’Negev Field School, a female soldier named Avia posed an important question that demanded reflection: What would Israel be like if SPNI didn’t exist?

To answer the question, I began compiling a list of SPNI’s achievements, milestones and activities. 

In addition to developing a network of field schools in the most extraordinary natural areas, including Ein Gedi, Eilat, Mitzpe Ramon, the Mediterranean Sea at Achziv, and Mt. Hermon, where SPNI guides lead hikes and orienteering programs to introduce the population to the wonders of Israel’s natural diversity, we also helped establish the Israel Nature Reserves Authority and the Israel National Parks Authority (they were two distinct entities in the 1960s).

We formed the Israel Trails Committee, which is responsible for marking and maintaining approximately 10,000 km of hiking trails across Israel that are safe, interesting and preserve nature.  This, of course, includes the Israel National Trail, which spans the length of Israel and is by far our longest hiking trail at around 1,000 km.  

SPNI's first logo

We established bird watching centers across the country, developed environmental education programs for residents, immigrant groups and tourists, and work with diverse communities across the country, including Arab, Druze, Bedouin, and Ultra-Orthodox populations, to connect both kids and adults to nature while embracing their distinctive cultures.

If SPNI didn’t exist, the entire country would have continued picking wildflowers, and we might not have been able to enjoy some of them today.  The development of the Haifa Marina would have destroyed the natural resources along Israel’s coastal plain, the Jerusalem Hills would have been overwhelmed by construction, and the dunes of Ashdod would have become large housing projects – rolling down the dunes with our children would be but a distant memory.  In addition, the beautiful southern hills of Modi'in would have also disappeared under heavy construction, unrestricted fishing would have destroyed some of our fish species, Gazelle Valley Park would have been transformed into office buildings and a residential housing, and “urban nature” would have become a contraction in terms.

Indeed, we have much to celebrate, and it is a blessing that SPNI does exist and can continue to carry on this important work.  That said, we must acknowledge our incredible partners, including environmental organizations, government ministries and the general public, without whom we could not have reached this point and would not be able to continue our environmental mission.

It’s also important that we take this opportunity, this momentous milestone, to look to the future and identify the challenges that lie ahead. 

Development plans still threaten areas that are environmentally essential and in dire need of protection, and various infrastructure project have the potential to cause critical damage to man and nature, the proposed train to Eilat among the most prominent. We have a long way to go to adequately protect the sea.  Our children are spending far too much time indoors in front of screens and far too little time outdoors hiking our amazing trails and connecting with nature.  And the absence of legislation for how to handle invasive species exposes us and nature to a number of significant dangers.

The Official document of SPNI's establishment

Still, our greatest challenge is the fact that some decision-makers perceived nature conservation as a luxury, rather than a necessity, and that every citizen does not yet regard the preservation of nature as a personal and existential problem.  As an example, it is crucial that the public sees our natural shared spaces as an extension of their own homes, instead of allowing our beautiful country to be covered in litter.  We hope to address the challenge of Israel’s waste disposal culture – and the large gaps in environmental education – in the coming years.

On a personal note, I should mention that SPNI is an integral part of my life.  I was born after the organization’s establishment, and I grew up with it and in it.  I was privileged to enter the ranks of SPNI as a teaching soldier, and today, I am very proud to lead it.  Every day, it seem as though I am standing on the shoulders of giants, and I feel privileged to be part of this vital endeavor to preserve our nature.

Thanks to our dedicated workers and supporters across the country and around the world, SPNI is a rare and wonderful organization.  If you are not yet a member, please join us – there is still so much for us to accomplish together.

Here’s to many more birthdays spent reflecting on our achievements and celebrating our positive impact on our beautiful country!

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