With Israel still at war, nature is a playing a major role in protecting the mental health of Israelis. Thus, I am delighted to bring you an interview with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI)’s CEO Dan Alon. SPNI is the largest nature conservation organization in Israel and among the oldest in the world.
Dan Alon: The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) was founded in 1953 in a fight to save the Hula wetlands; ever since, we’ve been dedicated to protecting Israel’s habitats, biodiversity, and biblical landscapes through advocacy, science, education, and activism. Throughout our history, we have demonstrated a continuing ability to adapt and harness our professional knowledge and infrastructure to meet Israel’s environmental challenges.
Today, in our 70th year, we have come full circle through our paradigm-shifting project we’ve called Start-Up Nature. Start-Up Nature has figured out how to rewild Israel’s wetlands as a solution to the dual biodiversity and climate crises, creating artificial wetlands that store carbon and sustain the annual global migrations of 500 million birds to and from Africa each year.
With Israel fighting a war and working hard to get the hostages back, how to you get people to still focus on the environment? Why is it important now?
It’s true that the environment is not a top priority now, but because of nature’s healing power, it is more important to us than ever! Spending time in nature is scientifically proven to reduce stress, anxiety and depression.
Hundreds of thousands of Israelis, if not more, are currently suffering from trauma, depression, anxiety or stress. With Israel’s mental health system already stretched beyond its limits, SPNI, like many civil society organizations, is contributing to the homefront where we can. With our expertise, we rapidly rolled out an eco-therapy program called “Nature Heals” in November.
Nature Heals provides guided trips in nature, many for free, to help soothe a nation. Tens of thousands of people have already taken advantage. (To register for upcoming activities, go to www.teva.org.il).
Another fantastic Nature Heals activity has been our overnight camps in the desert for 600 youth displaced from their communities around Gaza and the north. It’s been the first time many have felt like regular teens since October 7th.
As one parent remarked, “SPNI may not seem the most likely source of comfort at this time, but you gave us exactly what we needed.”
How do you go about achieving your goals?
One of our mottos is “Educate, Love, Protect”. We work to protect nature directly through all available tools and legal means: advocacy and policy work in all of Israel’s planning committees, field science and citizen monitoring. But we also work to educate Israelis about nature in formal education in all sectors – Jewish religious and secular, and Arab, Druze, and Bedouin – and in informal education programs as well. We also work to foster a love of nature – in our field schools and on the extensive systems of hiking trails we blaze and maintain, including the iconic Israel National Trail.
Do you have partners? Who are they?
We work with various partners in the government, private and public sectors, academia, grassroots groups and Israeli and international environmental organizations.
One of our long-time partners is the IDF. As IDF bases are closed areas, they become de-facto nature reserves. Ten years ago, we launched a project where different units would pitch conservation projects on their bases and receive funding to implement them. We’re now advising the IDF on how they can mitigate the effects of climate change through nature-based solutions. During the war, we’ve worked with them to reduce their impact on nature and nature’s impact on operations.
Another long-term partnership is with the Israel Electric Company and the Parks and Nature Authority. Together, we’ve been protecting endangered birds of prey and reintroducing other species, such as Griffon vultures.
What have been some of your biggest successes?
Where to start? We wrote Israel’s first laws for wildlife protection, and our founding campaign resulted in establishing Israel’s first nature reserve and helped establish Israel’s Nature Protection Authority; today, 25% of Israel is protected in nature in reserves or parks. In the last decade, we’ve led the way on marine conservation, successfully campaigning to establish Israel’s first marine protected area in 2019, with a goal to add nine more by 2030.
Our most famous success is probably our campaign in the 1960s that saved Israel’s wildflowers. Another well-known program is the Crane Project, which I launched in the 1990’s. Wintering cranes were feasting on newly planted seeds, wrecking the next crop. By feeding the cranes in one central location, we reduced the conflict between cranes and farmers and generated tens of millions of dollars for the local economy by creating one of Israel’s top tourist attractions. The program is now managed by the JNF-KKL at the Agmon-Hula Park.
I assume there have been some times when you felt you hit a brick wall. Can you give us an example of that and how you pivoted to do something that worked better?
About 25 years ago, I was very involved in a major environmental struggle against the construction of Road 6 in Israel. We failed, and the highway was built. Still, SPNI and I continued to do what we always do: constantly looking for ways to mitigate the environmental impact, such as creating wildlife crossings, reducing light pollution, and even partnering with Waze to track roadkill to spur new conservation approaches.
Can you tell us about something that you find exciting about what you are doing and where and how others can help?
I’m incredibly excited about our Start Up Nature project right now. Since the 1900s, over 90% of Israel’s wetlands have been destroyed. This is a massive local loss but with global repercussions. Israel is a critical stopover site for a billion migrating birds from Asia and Europe, as depending on the season, we’re the first or last stop for birds flying over the Sahara Desert.
No one thought you could create new habitats in densely populated Israel, but we saw an opportunity and took it. Like the Start Up Nation’s hi-tech entrepreneurs, Start Up Nature developed a unique solution to an impossible problem. After two successful pilot programs, we’re now on track to rewild 2,500 acres by 2030, double our initial goal, with the majority of funding coming from the government, which is a serious win for nature, not just in Israel but also in Africa, Europe and Asia.
What is your advice for other people who are just getting their start on climate issues?
Give nature its due. We must do everything possible to protect nature and biodiversity, two sides of the same coin. We must advocate for nature-based solutions to mitigate the effects of global warming; these methods – often not much more than protecting existing habitats – are the first, best, and least expensive way to do so.
How can folks learn more about your work and/or help?
As a registered NGO (with “Friends of “ Organizations in many countries), you can help by donating. And please come visit! In March, we’re relaunching eco-tourism trips in English for individuals and groups. If you want more information, please visit our website, www.natureisrael.org.