In mid-March last year, Raquel Molina, the director of the Galapagos National Park, was fired after only two years on the job. That same week, University of Richmond journalism professor Steve Nash was in the Galapagos Islands with his family on vacation. Overhearing the news, Nash became intrigued, and while the tour group swam side by side with sea lions and trekked around the islands searching for marine iguanas, he couldn’t resist turning over some rocks of his own and looking for answers.

The Galapagos Islands, an archipelago off the coast of Ecuador, were the best-known destination of Charles Darwin’s famed 1835 expedition on the HMS Beagle, a voyage that helped inspire the theory of evolution and his book On the Origin of Species.

Today, though Galapagos and its surrounding marine reserve are designated a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, their unique ecosystem is in jeopardy. Keeping this natural heritage intact requires both ecological and political action — especially when it comes to the islands' growing human population.

Nash set out to do a status report on the ecology of Galapagos, which would include finding out why Molina, a biologist with a master's degree in coastal environmental management and years of experience working on local environmental projects, was terminated after such a short run. To make things even more interesting, Galapagos was, at the time, on the eve of a trifecta year. In 2009 Galapagos celebrates the 50th anniversary of its national park, the 150th anniversary of Origin and the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin.

After asking some questions during his March trip, Nash returned to the islands seven months later in full journalistic mode. He started at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, talking to scientists and others about environmental challenges, and the future. One person who had understandable reservations about arranging an interview was Molina herself.

"She had paid a high price for her principles," Nash said.

Eventually, though reluctant to bring the high-stress events of March and the preceding months to public notice once again, Molina opened up for three hours.

Nash's article, "Ecotourism and Other Invasions — On Darwin's 200th, a conflicted Galapagos with shorter horizons," appears in the February issue of BioScience magazine. This is the first time in the journal's 44-year history that the cover story is a work of journalism rather than a science research article.

In it, Nash explains: "Raquel Molina battled the tour industry, the scuba-dive operators, illegal fishermen and other interest groups, and she was the target of protest marches, petitions, bad press, and threats." At one point, trying to protect a sea turtle nesting site at a local airbase, she was beaten by military guards and hospitalized.

True to her background as a scientist, Molina made the ecosystem her first priority. Oswaldo Rosero, of the conservation group WildAid, calls her "Just a very tough woman, very strict." Detractors, however, characterized her campaigns as quixotic and, ultimately, futile.

One of the biggest threats to Galapagos is the growth of the local population, which is directly related to the tourism industry. It has grown tenfold in the past decade, and pours around $250 million into Ecuador's economy. So while tourism alone is not to blame — the article explains that visitors to the islands must pay a $100 entrance fee and all arriving flights are fumigated — mainland Ecuadorians are flocking to the islands for employment opportunities.

As the number of residents and tourists rises, their baggage inevitably comes along: housing, food and diesel fuel, for example. Accelerating cargo traffic from the mainland is a "conveyor belt" for invasive alien species. The Ecuadorian government, however, has actually decreased some kinds of cargo inspections in recent years.

The article reports, in detail, the devastating effect that invasive species have on the local flora and fauna. Nash also got an answer to his original question. Molina was fired "after she refused entry to a cruise ship whose official papers were a matter of controversy."

Many of the experts Nash interviewed seem to walk a wavering line that divides realism and despair about protecting this world-class biological treasure. As one of his sources puts it: "...if you can't do it here, can you really do it anywhere else? If it's successful, then you have a model to export to the rest of the world, while maintaining a very, very special place."