Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper joined Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) officials Wednesday to lay the cornerstone for a future bird sanctuary and visitors center in Agamon Hula named in his honor.
The Stephen J. Harper – Prime Minister of Canada, Agamon Hula KKL-JNF Bird Sanctuary Visitor and Educational Center will stretch over a 4,000 square meter area. It aims to provide visitors with a modern facility on the KKL-JNF Agamon Island, which is already among the five most frequented sites in Israel and attracts more than 400,000 visitors annually. A computerized image of the future center depict an arched, bridge-like structure suspended over a starkly white visitors’ center, with a wooden rooftop lookout and a grass-covered slope leading to the greenery below the building.
“It is my honor to be at this amazing site,” Harper said at the groundbreaking ceremony. “I intend to come back here and visit the new center that will be named for me. This center symbolizes for me the warm and unbreakable relationship shared between Canada and Israel.”
In the 1950s, KKL-JNF led the government-sponsored project to drain the swamp lands of the Hula, both to create agricultural land and reduce the incidence of malaria that was plaguing the region. Ultimately, the project added about 6,000 hectares of agricultural land to the nearby communities. Although the valley turned from a malaria- ridden region to arable land, environmental problems – such as pesticide flow from the valley into Lake Kinneret – also ensued.
In response, KKL-JNF established a 100-hectare lake in the region in the mid-1990s, which filters the water flowing from the valley to the Kinneret, allowing the region to once again become a refuge for birds.
The region has now become a beacon to tourists, with bird-watching sites where 500 million migrating fowl pass through twice each year, fishfilled waterways, bike paths and walking trails. Also on the KKLJNF Agamon Island is the Hula Ringing Station, operated in cooperation with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI).
In 2010, KKL-JNF and the Canadian province of Manitoba signed a twinning agreement pairing Agamon Hula in Israel and Oak Hammock Marsh in Manitoba as freshwater hubs for both tourists and migrating birds. The same year, BBC Wildlife Magazine ranked Agamon Hula ninth in a list of the best sites for viewing wildlife in the world. Among the attractions at today’s Agamon Hula site are pedal-powered safari wagons, golf carts, and bicycles for bird observation, as well as specialized tours.
Also in the region is the Hula Nature Reserve, operated by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), which includes paths for bird observation, a floating bridge, and a small visitors center.
The reserve is situated south of Agamon Hula, on a 320-hectare portion of the original, undrained lake.
The Harper bird sanctuary and visitors center is expected to be ready within two years at a cost of about NIS 50 million. All of the construction will abide by strict environmental standards, incorporating values of nature conservation and green building, as well as paying special attention to noise – which can influence bird behavior, KKL-JNF stressed.
The organization feels Harper’s name is a fitting choice for the future site.
“Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a strong supporter of KKL-JNF. He is considered a true friend of the state and the Jewish people and has always stood by our side, even when he went against the agreement that the world powers signed with Iran,” KKL-JNF chairman Effi Stenzler said.
In addition to the accolades he received from KKL-JNF at Agamon Hula, Harper was awarded an honorary degree from Tel Aviv University on Wednesday night.
The award was conferred “in recognition of his standing as an exemplary world leader who champions freedom, human rights, and the rule of law; his promotion of higher education; his consistent, forthright, and principled support for Israel, both personally and in his capacity as prime minister of Canada; and his active and courageous role in combating anti-Semitism and other extremist views.”
According to Tel Aviv University, since Harper took office in 2006, his administration has implemented stringent political accountability measures, has reduced personal and business taxes to the lowest level in 40 years, introduced reforms to the criminal justice system, and strengthened the international reputation of Canada as a reliable ally in defense of freedom, democracy, and human rights.