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Nature Plus People, Whoa!

My friend loved his new job as a seasonal ranger at Yellowstone Park. He hoped it would lead to something permanent. This was back in the 1970s.

Fed up with cities and the two-legged wildlife he had to deal with as a policeman in Nassau County, New York, he left the East Coast. He knew he was getting the break of a lifetime with the National Park Service.

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Yet nothing prepared him for the naivet and often downright foolishness of tourists and their encounters with the wild animals of Yellowstone.

People feeding the animals were only the half of it. Getting too close to take a photo was the major problem. Invariably, proximity spooked an animal and in turn the animal in some way panicked, causing mayhem. This ranged from bears to moose to free-ranging buffalo and elk.

The all-time tale of what not to do around bears supposedly happened when a pair of rangers came upon a car parked by the side of the road.

A couple were taking pictures of their youngster with two black bear cubs. They had smeared peanut butter all over their child's face. The cubs were licking it off. It definitely made for a better photo. Incredibly, no one was hurt. The rangers fined the parents big time.

Our cover story by Jillian Lloyd is also about getting too close. But the proximity she writes about isn't for a photo-op. In the vignettes she reports, people are not being so stupid as to mix peanut butter and bears.

The point of conflict is twofold: Humans are settling in territory where historically they have not; and conservation efforts have been so successful that an increase in the numbers of predator animals has caused them to spill over into settled areas.

Alligators in the Southeastern United States are the best example of this. It is estimated there are more than a million of the reptiles in Florida alone.

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Most people limit their contact with true wildlife to television. This is the age of the Discovery Channel, PBS, National Geographic, "Nature," and Marty Stouffer's "Wild America."

These shows are entertaining. They are informative. And they universally preach respect for the wildness of animals and the need to give predators their space. It is impossible to watch them and not see something eating something. The subtext invariably conveys an element of fear.

Twice I came across a black bear while hiking in Montana. How big is a bear in the woods? Very.

Almost 150 years ago Henry David Thoreau wrote: "In wildness is the preservation of the world." His words became a keynote of the environmental movement and are now inscribed on the psyche of nature lovers everywhere.

Read Judy Silber's piece on snapping turtles as well. If there's a pond, these aloof, irrefutably wild creatures are probably in it.

Think about the full meaning of wilderness.

* Comments or questions? Write to Ideas Editor, One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115, or e-mail

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