Vernon (Tom) Gilbert (’50, ’54)

Category: Alumni Professional Achievement | Awards

2021 Alumni Professional Achievement Award Winner

You may not know his name, but if you live in the Southeast, you have almost certainly seen the handiwork of Tom Gilbert. One of the world’s most active and visionary conservationists, Gilbert has spent his life protecting natural resources, including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Gilbert earned his BA in botany and his MS in plant ecology from UT in 1950 and 1954, respectively. Over the next 25 years, he worked as a naturalist at multiple national parks, planned conservation areas in India and Honduras, taught African wildlife management courses in Tanzania, and proposed and implemented the 1974 US-USSR Summit Agreement on Biosphere Reserves.

As his mission carried on, Gilbert focused on biosphere reserves to preserve diverse and unique ecosystems, including planning the Southern Appalachian Man and the Biosphere (SAMAB) cooperative, which entails regional icons like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Mt. Mitchell, and more. Along with this, he has designed an environmental monitoring project to focus on the Appalachian Trail, developed the World Network of Biosphere Reserves, planned the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Program, led the US delegation to the Third World Congress on Biosphere Reserves in 2008, and spearheaded numerous projects in North America and abroad focused on conservation and education.

Though Gilbert’s accomplishments are far too numerous to list, his recognitions further emphasize the importance of his work. Some awards he has received include the Department of Interior Distinguished Service Award, the Department of Interior Meritorious Award, and the Special Achievement Award from the George Wright Society (GWS)—a professional organization he founded, and served as its first president, that protects cultural and natural areas through research, training, and education.

Though Gilbert’s work has taken him to far corners of the world, he’s never forgotten his alma mater and the state of Tennessee. He has championed conservation and education programs within the state and spent several years teaching as an adjunct instructor in UT’s graduate ecology program.