12/20/2011 03:14

“Forest in current state is at risk of renewed disaster,” environmental protection minister says.
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Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan has demanded the government do everything in its power to enact the NIS 55 million budget necessary to rehabilitate the flora and fauna damaged in last year’s Carmel fire.

In a letter he sent to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz on December 15, Erdan stressed the officials must take urgent action to begin the rehabilitation work to protect the area from undergoing a repeat disaster.

The government, he wrote, is required by a December 5, 2010 government decision concerning “the rehabilitation of fire damages” to provide the NIS 55m. already agreed upon by all parties.

The Environmental Protection Ministry has fulfilled its part of the agreement, by formulating a plan for the rehabilitation process, he added.

“The postponement of the budget transmits a message that nothing has changed.

We are powered by the Treasury, which prevents the execution of critical and life-saving operations,” Erdan said.

As of today, just more than a year after the fire, as well as seven months after the Finance Ministry agreed to the NIS 55m. sum and six months after the subject was brought the cabinet for a hearing, none of the rehabilitative funds has been transferred to the Environmental Protection Ministry, Erdan explained in his letter. This he attributes to the problem that the Finance Ministry determined that the funds must come from a new “fund for open spaces,” which has yet to be established.

In response, a Finance Ministry spokeswoman said Monday that with the approval of the Knesset, the Israel Lands Administration decided to establish an “open spaces fund,” which encompasses about 1 percent of the ILA’s revenue. Among other things, the fund will be providing the NIS 55m. per year for Carmel rehabilitation, but has not yet been set up due to disagreements between the housing and environment ministers about the fund’s management, according to the Finance Ministry.

Erdan told The Jerusalem Post on Monday that this was untrue.

“We have an agreement with the [Construction and] Housing Ministry from more than five months ago about the regulation,” he said, stressing that the prime minister had commanded the finance minister to provide funds for the rehabilitation.

The ministry would prefer, however, that the money come from a different place than the ILA fund, because if the money in this fund is used repeatedly for fires, there will not be any left to finance other open space preservation, Erdan explained.

No matter where the money comes from though, the Carmel communities face a “real and immediate danger,” and the whole region requires fire “buffer zones” for communities, roads, isolated chunks of forest and the Haifa Forest wildlife reserve, according to Erdan’s letter.

There are still “tremendous quantities” of forest area and thickets that were untouched by last year’s disaster and could therefore easily catch fire in their current state, the letter continues. In addition, the removal of pine seedlings that have sprouted in the area since the fire must begin immediately, as an overly dense pine population can be subject to fires once again.

“The goal of rehabilitation is not only a return to the previous situation but to create a healthier forest, richer biodiversity, which will have inherent characteristics that diminish the risk of fires,” a ministry statement said.