Hundreds hiked into the Jerusalem Forest on Tuesday in a mass effort to celebrate the city’s western woods and protest plans to divide the area with a multi-lane highway.

Road 16, slated to connect Road 1 to the Menachem Begin Highway by running through the Jerusalem Forest and under several city neighborhoods, first received approval from the Interior Ministry’s Committee of National Planning and Construction of National Infrastructure in July 2011. The plans called for quarrying two pairs of tunnels – 1,500 and 1,350 meters – under the Har Nof and Yefei Nof neighborhoods, which would meet at an above ground intersection near the Jerusalem Forest’s Revida Stream.

A ministry statement said that the new roadway would “enable fast and convenient connection to the busy area in Givat Shaul” and provide “a new entrance to Jerusalem from the west.”

Immediately, however, green groups and local residents began arguing that the new highway would destroy the forest. By January, activists had already submitted 3,700 objections to the plan to the relevant committee, and a ministry investigator is currently preparing a report on the program, according to Paul Lenga, chairman of the forum of organizations for the Jerusalem Forest.

“This event involves going up to the Jerusalem Forest on Chag Succot because on Chag Succot we go up to Jerusalem,” Lenga told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.

“We are celebrating the Jerusalem Forest today – because we might not be able to do so in the future if the construction plans bear fruit.”

At the Tuesday event, hundreds of people showed up from various walks of society – including environmental groups like Green Course, members of the Green Movement political party, Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur and secular and religious area residents alike. Singer Shuli Natan delivered a performance to open the celebrations.

The primary goal of the protesters is to cancel the plan for the road and divert funds from private vehicle interests to developing public transportation, according to Ofek Birnholtz, head of the Green Movement’s Jerusalem branch. However, a secondary and perhaps equally important aim is to bring about the preservation of the forest itself, he said.

“[Jerusalem] has a potential to be a very green city,” Birnholtz told the Post. “I think the city neglects the forest and underestimates it.

Rather than focusing on only the negative at Tuesday’s event, the celebrants strove to have a more optimistic outlook, he explained.

"We want to preserve the forest,” Birnholtz said. “We want something positive done.” Tsur, on the other hand, stressed that “the Jerusalem Forest is very important to the city of Jerusalem” and that the decision to establish Road 16 was a national, Interior Ministry decision.

While the municipality is not necessarily in principle against establishing Road 16, it does not support such a highway crisscrossing its wooded oasis, according to Tsur.

“It shouldn’t be a drive through forest,” she told the Post. “It’s a very precious 1,000 dunams [100 hectares] and that’s a very significant area within a city.”

The forest, she explained, receives very fastidious care from Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael- Jewish National Fund, and plans are in the works to develop a promenade along Har Nof.

“We have to close the forest to thru-traffic and make sure it doesn’t get used to bring through the supplies to expansion of Highway 1 and the eventual expansion of Road 16,” Tsur said.

In addition to closing the forest to roadways, Tsur stressed that all plans for Road 16 and any additional infrastructure should wait until construction on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem “heavy rail” is complete.

“I think we can do a lot of evaluating meanwhile,” she said. “We should quantify the impacts of the heavy rail.”

With all of the new highrise buildings planned for the Jerusalem International Convention Center area as well as the future central railroad station there, surveys have shown that only 40 percent of travelers to the capital will continue to come with their cars, according to Tsur. As Road 1 expands, a dedicated express bus lane akin to that of Tel Aviv would also help regulate traffic flow, she added.

“I would hope and pray that we don’t build Road 16 in whatever form it’s supposed to be until we build the heavy rail and see what impact it has,” Tsur said.

Citing the many different types of people who came to Tuesday’s event, Green Movement co-chairman Prof. Alon Tal stressed just how important it is that all people and parties work together to block the road’s construction.

“This is an election year in the city of Jerusalem,” Tal said. “During election years, sometimes you can get commitments that would be difficult to get in other times.”

Only after all parties take on this issue will it be able to really get back on the governmental agenda, according to Tal.

“If we don’t do it now, it will be gone,” he said

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger