Itzhak Rabihiya hikes in the forest around his home in the Jerusalem suburb of Har Adar nearly every morning, weaving through 50-year-old pine trees that were planted by the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) to create the Teachers Union Forest.

But the view of wildflowers and gazelles was marred a week ago when he noticed large red “Xs” decorating the trunks of hundreds of trees.

Residents began asking questions, and eventually learned that national water company Mekorot is planning to construct an enormous water reservoir in the forest between Har Adar and Mevaseret Zion, to bring desalinated and treated water to the capital.

According to Rabihiya, who initiated the “Saving Our Forest” public campaign and runs a public relations agency, the reservoir will result in 800 pine, cypress and ancient oak trees being cut down.

The reservoir will contain thousands of cubic meters of water, at a height of 17 meters and diameter of 100 meters, he said. The reservoir itself is roughly the size of a soccer field and with its high location, will use gravity to carry the water to Jerusalem.

Pipes extending from both directions will be four meters wide, and each kilometer of pipeline will require the clearing of 1 hectare (2.47 acres) of trees, according to Rabihiya’s data. In addition to the new buildings, residents are worried about the toll construction will take – since it will require that new roads be cut into the forest to deliver supplies.

“This option destroys the entire forest,” Rabihiya told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.

“The moment they start to build they need security and tractors, and this will destroy it all. There are animals here, and the separation fence has already cut off a lot of their habitat. There are about 50 gazelles, wild hogs, beautiful birds. The trees are about 50 years old and there are amazing wildflowers. All of this will be destroyed.”

While stressing that only KKL-JNF could address the issue of cutting down trees, a Mekorot spokeswoman said that the plan to build the reservoir and pipes received government authorization in January 2009. The acceptance followed the project’s approval by the National Infrastructure Committee under the framework of National Infrastructure Plan 24 – establishing a fifth division of Jerusalem’s western region and separating pressured zones, she explained.

“This project is a national infrastructure project approved by all relevant planning and building committees, as well as all other relevant bodies involved with approving such a project,” the spokeswoman told the Post.

During the planning process, Mekorot examined various alternatives to this site. But this option received approval from all landscape and environmental perspectives – with the participation of bodies like KKL-JNF, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the Environmental Protection Ministry and a forum of green activists from the Jerusalem region, according to the company.

Meanwhile, an engineer from the Har Adar Council and representatives from the community who attended a Mekorot-sponsored meeting also received copies of the plan, the spokeswoman stressed.

“In order to minimize the impact on the landscape and the environment, Mekorot has committed to submerging the pool with the aim of downplaying the pool’s appearance above ground, in addition to performing a massive landscape restoration,” she said.

The spokeswoman would not confirm the project’s size or costs – which some reports put at NIS 2.5 billion.

At the time the plan was approved, those who had authorized it were well aware of the need to cut and shift many trees in the area, she added.

An Interior Ministry spokeswoman said the project – to construct the fifth water system to supply Jerusalem and surrounding communities, including to Har Adar – received approval on January 29, 2009. Many alternatives were under examination before this location was selected, and no objections to the site were submitted during the public review period, the ministry said.

Rabihiya, on the other hand, said that while the relevant authorities may have published the plans in some form, none of the residents of Har Adar or the surrounding neighborhoods were aware of the project. They received no notice of the required period for filing public oppositions, he added. The group has obtained a lawyer to determine whether it can sue Mekorot for not sufficiently publicizing the plan. Their lawyer, Shmuel Havilio, has also appealed to KKL-JNF’s Forestry branch, which must grant final approval to cut down any trees.

The Saving Our Forest group insists that there are other suitable locations near Mevaseret and Mount Eitan where Mekorot could build a reservoir without deforesting large tracts of land. Rahabiya also said archaeologists have recently discovered tombs from the Second Temple period where Mekorot wants to build the reservoir, but that the Israel Antiquities Authority has not yet surveyed the area.

IAA spokeswoman Yoli Schwartz said the organization had recently received plans for the project and will need to closely examine it to determine whether it will harm archeological relics. Mekorot cannot start construction until they receive IAA approval, she said.

The resident activists are currently in the process of trying to get Israel’s larger environmental groups on their side, starting with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and Adam Teva V’Din – Israel Union for Environmental Defense.

“It will be very difficult and unfortunately almost impossible to stop the damage to the forest because we are talking about legal plans that were approved years ago,” Amit Bracha, executive director of Adam Teva V’Din, told the Post. “Our work now is to minimize the damage by looking closely at the permits for cutting down the trees and checking if they follow the proper legal procedure, and also by trying to put pressure on KKLJNF with the residents.”

The KKL-JNF responded that the organization “has not yet received a request to cut the trees.”

Saving Our Forest is holding a protest and activity day on Saturday morning at the planned construction site to raise awareness about the danger posed to the forest by the reservoir.

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