In addition to performing their day-to-day military duties, soldiers and commanders at the Palmahim air force base have been working tirelessly to preserve the rare sand dune ecosystem that surrounds their base.

The Palmachim soldiers, along with four other entities from across Israel, will be receiving a nature and conservation award from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) at the organization’s Fifth Jerusalem Environment and Nature Conference, held on November 5.

This year’s winners – which include the Jerusalem and Netanya municipalities, Emek Hefer residents and a Sharon region educational project – will be receiving recognition for their extensive activities toward preserving biodiversity, according to SPNI. The conference itself will focus on a very particular form of biodiversity, maintaining that of the sea, and will feature talks from ministers, Knesset members, policy makers, academics and experts from abroad on sea management.

“Nature provides man [with] essential services for existence – air quality, water quality, food supply, pollination for crop growth, soil fertility, drugs derived from nature – and each of these influences directly and indirectly on our existence,” a statement from SPNI said.

“Any harm to biodiversity is, ultimately, harm to man as well.”

At Palmahim, the soldiers are working to prevent such harm, SPNI stressed.

Most prominent among their preservation efforts is the maintenance of the coastal sand dunes, which SPNI describes as a “rare and unique ecosystem, rich in many national treasures.”

Two invasive species on the dunes – Golden aster weeds and Acacia saligna trees – are posing tens of hectares of threat to the area around the base, and the soldiers have been performing early elimination techniques to curb the problem from the onset. In addition, commanders at the base are constantly conducting educational activities to increase the soldiers’ affinity to nature and heritage.

“This project demonstrates that a body whose purpose is not fundamentally nature preservation, which manages valued lands, can take responsibility and maintain with active work the unique biodiversity within its jurisdiction,” the SPNI statement said.

The second award recipient will be the Jerusalem municipality, for pioneering the field of urban nature in Israel.

Jerusalem is the only Israeli authority with a Local Action for Biodiversity (LAB) plan under the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives – Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), according to SPNI.

Membership of ICLEI includes 12 megacities, 100 super-cities and urban regions, 450 large cities and 450 small and medium-sized cities and towns, in 84 countries.

As part of the city’s LAB program, Jerusalem has committed to implementing a program (in five stages) for managing urban biodiversity – preparing a survey, outlining urban operations, holding roundtable with all the stakeholders and promoting urban educational projects.

Aside from its official LAB project, the municipality has also been conducting nature surveys all throughout its territory, as well as developing the Gazelle Valley into an urban oasis and preserving the welfare of wildflowers, SPNI said.

Jerusalem is currently preparing its first master plan for urban nature in the country, and the city is also one of four pilot authorities in an international environmental program called Urbis-Urban Biosphere program.

Northwestward, the Netanya municipality received equal praise from SPNI, for its decision to appoint an urban ecological expert to an official city position – a first for Israel. In Netanya, many natural assets and landscapes unique to the city and can be cultivated and preserved to attract tourism, according to SPNI.

Some of these resources in particular include the purple iris growth, the Winter Pond, the Sergeant’s Forest and the seaside. As such the municipality has appointed urban ecologist Aviv Avisar to work within the Department of the City Engineer – a decision that SPNI praised as both socially and economically sound.

A fourth project to be celebrated is a community initiative called “a good place to live,” which has grown out of a group of residents in the Emek Hefer Regional Council.

The project encourages the use of wild animals as a biological control for rodents, insects and other pets, in order to reduce the presence of chemical use. Project participants take part in preserving winter ponds as a habitat for amphibians, building bat accommodations, constructing nesting homes for birds of prey and many other activities, SPNI reported.

“The uniqueness and importance of the project, beyond the zoological and educational value, is that it is being implemented by the community itself,” the statement said.

Facilitated by Dr. Moshe Natan, the Emek Hefer project first began in the Josiah’s Garden community as a pilot and quickly expanded. Now, every community that joins in the effort receives training as well as a subsidy of 50 percent of the project costs, funded by the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Emek Hefer Regional Council.

A final project to receive a reward at the Jerusalem Conference will be a biodiversity mapping program established by Nadav Gofer, head of education and information at the Sharon Region’s Environmental Unit. The project, in its fourth year, involves six local authorities and aims to stimulate students’ curiosity toward nature and expose them to biodiversity crises all over the world.

The students participate in exploratory tours where they are able to photograph a variety of species, helping create a database of local diversity, SPNI explained.

On a special Field Laboratory Day, hundreds of students and dozens of teachers from 30 schools take part in research collection, bringing the participants now to about 6,000 students in total.

“After six decades of action for nature and the environment, from Mount Hermon in the North to Eilat in the South, we decided that it is proper and fitting that we share the honor and appreciation with people, groups and organizations that are performing important activities for nature and the environment and carrying out pioneering initiatives of taking responsibility for the environment in which they live,” said Kosha (Moshe) Pakman, CEO of SPNI.

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