<B>The Galapagos' allure</B> Charles Darwin went to the Galapagos in the 19th century and found the inspiration for his <B>Origin of the Species</B>. Jack Nelson went there in the 1960s for a very different reason.

To put it simply, Nelson was a draft dodger determined to stay out of Vietnam. Though people fly right into the Galapagos these days, his pilgrimage involved quite a bit more adventure, including a five-day ferry ride from the nearest mainland. Safely ensconced on the islands, he sent the U.S. draft board a photo of himself making an obscene gesture.

That was more than 30 years ago. Since then, Nelson has settled into a more conventional existence. He runs a small hotel, helps raise his girlfriend's daughter and battles the myriad forces of greed that could destroy the Galapagos' fragile ecology.

It's around this colorful character that journalist Michael D'Orso loosely organizes his latest book, <I>Plundering Paradise: The Hand of Man on the Galapagos Islands</I>. D'Orso says in his introduction that people, not the raw forces of nature, are what he finds interesting. In the process of researching the Galapagos and its complex politics, he writes compellingly about its natural habitat, which includes ancient, 70-pound tortoises, marine iguanas and an abundance of rare finches. But D'Orso gets at the subject of the Galapagos' natural wonders through profiles of offbeat characters like Nelson.

The prize in a tug of war between greed and environmental conservation, the Galapagos Islands belong to Ecuador and are at risk from that country's turbulent government and sky-rocketing inflation. To poverty-stricken Ecuadorians, the riches of the Galapagos act as a powerful magnet.

The Darwin Research Station and Ecuador's park service try to hold the line against poaching and diesel-dripping cruise ships, but they have limited funds, few personnel and only one boat with which to cruise the seas and enforce restrictions. Into this scene of bureaucratic frustration enters Sea Shepherd, a militant environmental group that lends its boat to the cause of enforcing fishing restrictions off the Galapagos' coast. But even the unorthodox Sea Shepherds find themselves completely stymied by Ecuador's network of official corruption.

In the end, D'Orso hopes "that the grandeur and beauty and wonder of the Galapagos will prevail. And that the goodness of man will allow it."

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