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Keeping our trails independent

Israel's true national sport has hit some bumps in the path and a few key changes will ensure we can all go take a hike

With the Independence Day holiday upon us, hiking season is in full swing. Especially during spring time, public school classes of all stripes pour off of buses and onto the trail for their annual field trip. Rather than congregate in camps and cabins, youth movements conduct their activities out in the open, with scores of youngsters marching up and down the country on their Passover vacation. During the long Independence Day weekend, several million members of the general public will lace up their walking shoes and roam.

Hiking remains an iconic element of Israeli culture. A central part of the Zionist impulse envisioned Jews recapturing their status as “indigenous” people — getting to know their new identity out in the field with the immediacy that only a walk through the age-old landscapes, flora and fauna provides. Even preschoolers take baby steps to local parks where they take in first impressions of nature along with a fair amount of botanical and zoological taxonomy. The result is an Israeli environmental ethic that made hiking a national sport and led to 25 percent of Israel’s lands being “set aside” as nature reserves and an additional 9 percent as forests.

Today there is a richer range of recreational options out there than ever before. The Israel Trail may be the best manifestation of our outdoor cultural inclination. The 1000 kilometer pathway is celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year. Inspired by the American Appalachian Trail, it includes many of Israel’s most breathtaking and fascinating stretches, following a winding and undulated route from the Galilee’s northern tip to the Red Sea in the south. Many young Israelis find two months to do the entire trail as part of their pre- or post-army rite of passage; middle-aged hiking groups do weekend segments and complete the journey over the course of years. There is the lush “Sea to Sea” walk, from the Mediterranean to the Kinneret, where hikers are immersed for three days in leafy Galilean vegetation and panoramas. Recently rock climbing and mountain biking have made it onto the menu.

But lately there are signs that Israel’s culture of hiking is in danger. Concerns about liability in the face of an increasingly litigious Israeli culture have led many schools to take so-called “dangerous” routes off the table for their children. Insurance for trips is costly and even small groups going to safe places need a gun-toting guard. Youth groups can’t sleep in nature without a fence and security program. Such precautions increase the cost of a mere walk in the woods dramatically and totally kill the spontaneity and joy that hiking in beautiful places should offer.

People used to be able to swim in the streams and oases of nature reserves. But the National Parks Authority keeps tightening its criteria: first you could go in the water up to your waist; then up to the knees and now just the ankles. People swam in these pools and streams from time immemorial until our generation started stifling the impulse.

Nervousness about litigation is not without foundation. The Society for Protection of Nature in Israel, the country’s oldest and largest non-profit conservation group almost went bankrupt a decade back when a young American, fell from a cliff during a hike and won millions of dollars in damages in a tort suit. This year, Israel’s teacher’s union called on its members not to take students on hikes until each school appointed a safety officer and insurance coverage for accompanying teachers was increased. Israel’s high school children staged a strike calling for the trips to be reinstated and a compromise was reached. But it is a temporary solution.

When you add these safety obsessions to the entrance fees imposed on the public for visiting many of the more popular nature reserves (like Ein Gedi, the Sakhneh or Ein Avdat) – there is a profound sense that something very beautiful is being lost. The country needs to recognize these unfortunate trends, change direction and foster its rambling, adventurous nature once again.

There are policy measures that can help: For instance, the Ministry of Education should establish a publicly funded insurance policy to put school principals and youth group guides at ease. Israelis also need to be more insistent that their inspirational vistas and trails remain public property.

The Nature Reserves Authority needs to take a lesson from the JNF and open up some of its 51 parks and reserves that charge entrance fees to the general public. At the very least, they should be free to Israelis under 25 whose limited budgets may not allow them to avail themselves of their natural heritage. We must also be very vigilant in the coming years to make sure that the present panic over housing prices does not translate into environmentally devastating construction projects that transform scenic areas and their trails into concrete and asphalt. Cities need to be rejuvenated before we start paving paradise.

There is also room to lighten up. The outdoors should be exciting; it is absolutely fine for some trails to contain a reasonable element of danger. Heaven forbid that we conduct our outdoor recreation according to the dictates of hyper-cautious attorneys. Relative to what citizens face in their military training, a scamper across a rocky hillsides or a trek across a lonely desert wadi really is innocuous.

As we consider what this 67th Independence means for us as individuals and what it means to be truly independent — let’s think about taking back a bit of the abandon and freedom that have always been such a stimulating and satisfying part of life in this country. There is no better way to fall in love again with Israel than to see it up close – and not only through the windows of our cars or even with the HD clarity of our television screens. Yes – much has been lost here due to rapid development, myopia or just shoddy planning. But we should never forget that far more survives. So head out for the open spaces — or if you live abroad, start planning your next trip. What a privilege to be part of this wonderful country and enjoy access to such an astonishingly historic, biologically diverse and scenic promised land!

About the Author
Professor Alon Tal is a professor of Public Policy at Tel Aviv University, a veteran environmentalist and a former member of Israel's Knesset.
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