Cabinet meets in cave to mark nature week

Olmert: 'Love for nature needs to be properly valued,' decisions made about new camping grounds, promoting bike riding.

cabinet in cave 224 88 (photo credit: AP)
cabinet in cave 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has launched two programs to encourage Israel's citizens to get out and enjoy nature. During a special cabinet session held inside a cave at the Beit Shearim national park in the lower Galilee on Sunday morning, Olmert announced one plan to crisscross the country from North to South with bike trails and another program to upgrade dozens of camping sites. "We will... upgrade dozens of camping sites where people can enjoy the best conditions for an overnight stay, and all the necessary equipment, to change nature trips into... places where people can enjoy themselves. "We want to promote the popular sport. You, of course, know that I like exercising, [but] unfortunately, I can't do what I want all Israel's citizens to be able to - run, enjoy nature, ride bikes on the paths that will stretch from North to South for hundreds of kilometers," the prime minister said at the opening of the meeting. The cave cabinet session, held at the historic site of the Sanhedrin, marked the beginning of Love Nature, Water and the Environment Week, which was designed to raise environmental awareness ahead of Israel's 60 anniversary celebrations. While no formal plans exist yet, the cabinet approved the programs' budgets and deadlines. An interministerial committee headed by the Tourism Ministry will spearhead the project to turn Israel into a premier global destination for bikers. A total of NIS 100m. - NIS 20m. a year until 2013 - has been budgeted for the plan. The committee will have six months to present the initial plan for trails to be established as soon as possible and is expected to present a five-year plan within a year. According to statistics presented at the cabinet meeting, there are 60,000 sport riders in Israel and bike sales go up 20% every year. MK Dov Henin (Hadash) challenged the government to follow through and not use bike riding as a gimmick for good PR this week alone. "It's important to remember that the ball of real action is in the government's court. The proposed bill, 'Encouraging Bike Transportation,' which I initiated and which was signed by most MKS, is on the table right now. The bill represents a true and systematic way to encourage bike riding," he said. The JNF will continue building the actual trails themselves in line with their initiative begun eight years ago to introduce bike trails into the nation's nature reserves. The plan seeks to encourage biking by building an Israel Trail for biking from Metulla to Eilat, parts of which have already been constructed. Circular paths for family biking and more challenging rides will also be constructed, and urban biking as an environmentally friendly alternative to cars will be encouraged. "The decision was very important and ground breaking," Eyal Hirshtik of the Israel Cycling Federation, one of the initiators of the project, said in a statement, "The decision is a product of great cooperation between everyone in the government and outside it. I felt a real willingness to promote the issues and an understanding of their importance." After a long day of biking, sports enthusiasts will also be able to enjoy upgraded camping sites with all the necessary amenities. The government approved NIS 30m. over five years to create a unified standard for the country's campsites. In addition, an interministerial committee headed by Parks Authority head Eli Amitai will oversee the upgrading of 20 sites and the creation of 12 more which meet the high standard. "It is important for us because we believe that spending time in nature will lead to preserving nature. We've spent the last few years encouraging pupils to spend time beneath the stars. Therefore, it was very natural for us to take up this project," Amitai said. Meanwhile, the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee held another marathon discussion of the Clean Air Bill on Sunday. The vote on the bill was delayed until at least May, however, after the government ministries demanded more time to determine jurisdictions in light of the new legislation. California Congressman Henry Waxman (D), who has been heavily involved in environmental legislation in the US, also began the working part of his trip on Sunday with a meeting in Ashkelon with the mayor to hear about the coal-burning factory in the city and potential plans to build a second one there as well. He will attend meetings in the Knesset on Monday and is scheduled to appear as the keynote speaker at Tuesday's Environment 2020 conference.