GALAPAGOS ISLANDS, ECUADOR — IT'S easy to make ecotour operators slightly wild-eyed. Ask them if the last possible way to save the remaining pristine habitats in the world is to license ecotourists. Repeat: license ecotourists. If you don't qualify to go to the Galapagos Islands, you don't go.You can hear tour operators screaming all over the world, not to mention the American Civil Liberties Union. Of course, it will never happen. With a passport people can go just about anywhere in the world if they can afford it. Three cheers for the right to travel. And that's the main problem, although not the only problem, when it comes to ecotourism and mainstream tourism. Tourism is rapidly becoming the largest industry in the world. Thus, how can the untrammeled, unsullied places on earth be protected from commercialism and curious crowds of humans? David Western, the president of the Ecotourist Society and one of East Africa's leading conservationists, sounds the alarm heard on a global basis: "The biodiversity of life is now under threat ... we have a very short time in which to conserve that biodiversity." For instance, along with tourist sites just about everywhere, the number of people who go to the Galapagos Islands continues to rise each year. The attraction is the opportunity to walk through a rare wildlife habitat and experience what has been called a "living laboratory." But it is also a fragile laboratory. Those who administer and care for these extraordinary islands, both government agencies and private groups, have not kept pace for a number of reasons. The result is somewhat of a political, social, and conservation crisis. One new response to the crisis is that a small number of foreign and domestic conservationists and tour operators have joined together and formed The Ecotourism Society, based in Alexandria, Va. The objectives are "to make tourism a positive force for conservation," and "to make certain ecotourism does not destroy natural habitats." The initial focus of the society is the Galapagos. Well and good, says Oswaldo Munoz, president of Nuevo Mundo Expeditions in Quito, Ecuador. But he explains the dilemma of conflicting interests over the Galapagos. "Somebody says let's organize to save the Galapagos," he says in Quito, "and this organization is made up of many companies. On the one hand, they want to protect the islands because of the inefficiency of the Ecuadorean organizations to protect the islands. And on the other hand, we [tour operators in Ecuador] constantly receive faxes and telexes from US operators saying, 'I need more spaces. I need a 20-passenger ship.' It's the business, and they're pressuring us to give them places on ships and plane s. We want to save Galapagos and at the same time we want the business." Faced with this kind of commercial pressure, will the Galapagos be "saved" 10 years from now? As mentioned previously in this series, Ecuador's President Rodrigo Borja established a commission a year ago to make recommendations for the future of Galapagos. He also put a temporary moratorium on granting permissions for new tourism operations. Currently, there are about 80 vessels operating in the Galapagos, but only an estimated 10 percent have fixed itineraries, which means boats crowd at the main sites in the islands. Officials at the Charles Darwin Research Station say that President Borja has been sympathetic to Galapagos concerns and has acted fairly quickly in past instances. "He made the islands a whale sanctuary," says Fionnuala Walsh, assistant to the director of the Charles Darwin Research Station, "the first whale sanctuary in the world. But enforcement is the next step." Borja's term ends this year and he cannot run for reelection. "Despite what government is in power," says Mr. Munoz, "we live on, the tour operators, the Charles Darwin Research Station, and the conservation organizations; we live on not only in a business sense but in preserving Ecuador forever." In the end, or at least 10 years from now, preservation of the Galapagos may well be due to the tenacity of international conservation organizations in pushing for a balance between commercial and biological interests. Many scientists consider the islands "hallowed ground." "The international community is always aware of what is going on in the Galapagos," says Jorge Anhalzer, the president of CETUR (Corporacion Ecuatoriana De Tourismo) and a member of the president's commission. "And they have enough political and economical weight behind them that they can have their voice heard." The Charles Darwin Research Station, officially established in 1961 in an agreement with the Ecuadorean government, has conducted much scientific research on the flora and fauna of the islands, saved species, and monitored conditions throughout the archipelago. Among the institutions that help fund its activities are World Wildlife Fund, Smithsonian, Frankfurt Zoological Society, a Swedish Galapagos Foundation, and others. The station operates on an annual budget of around $1 million. "We try to prevent extinctions," says Ms. Walsh of the station's work. "The tortoises, the iguanas, some of the plants. And another objective is education, to pass techniques and knowledge on to the Ecuadoreans. In general, we say tourism is too much now, but for the benefits that come back to the islands in terms of donations, we understand its worth." Ultimately, the care and feeding of each ecotourist may be equally as critical in conserving the islands as are the conservation groups that pave the way. As long as ecotourists (perhaps in limited numbers) have a genuine educational adventure in the Galapagos and know that they are supporting sustainable conservation, tourism will survive. Change to some other kind of tourism - big hotels, day tours in air-conditioned buses, night life and casinos - and Galapagos will join other habitats that have succu mbed to entertainment values in development. Tourism may survive, but at what price? Hoping to avoid this end, Kurt Kutay, a director of the Ecotourism Society and president of Wildland Adventures in Seattle, says four areas of improvement are important to tour operators: 1. The Galapagos National Park and the Darwin research station need to be more involved in decisions concerning the islands. 2. Ecuador's national parks budget needs to include patrol boats to manage tourism (there is only one coast guard boat now). 3. Tour guides need to be well-educated, knowledgeable, and articulate. 4. Population growth and development needs to be controlled. "I don't feel limiting tourists is the answer," Mr. Kutay says. "In fact, controlling the behavior is more important." Craig MacFarland, president of the Charles Darwin Foundation, former director of the Charles Darwin Research Station, and one of the directors of the Ecotourism Society, has been involved with the Galapagos since 1970. His perspective is one of hope and warning. "Before tourism came, Galapagos was an economic liability," he says. "It was costing Ecuador $3 million to $4 million a year to keep ports open and maintain sovereignty with military detachments. Now ecotourism brings up to $180 million a year." Mr. MacFarland goes on to trace a possible scenario that has occurred in other parts of the world. "What happens worldwide in [development of a place] is that it starts with exploration," he says. "That builds up to a certain level, and drops off. Then come the scientists, and that drops off. If it's a really pristine place, you might get a national park, which could lead into an ecotourism phase: well-organized nature tours like the Galapagos had in the '70s and still has most of the vestiges of. "That goes for awhile and then becomes massive tourism, which sets up a lot of little botanical gardens or zoological [parks] where the animals are brought to the people instead of letting them see animals in the wild. That drops off, and new markets open up and you create a Disneyland, a 'Galapagos Islandia.' And if you go any further, eventually you're into total abstraction, the Tahiti bar sort of thing, an abstraction of reality. "If we design a system properly, it puts a lid on this sort of thing," he says, "and you have a controlled economy, which doesn't allow for growth. I think that's what is needed if the situation is going to be stabilized, so that in the long term we'll have a total educationally oriented experience in Galapagos."