Tom Foti, recently retired senior ecologist at the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission (ANHC), has received the Arkansas Wildlife Federation’s highest honor: the Harold Alexander conservationist of the Year Award. This award caps an illustrious career that spans more than 50 years, but the legacy of Foti’s work in conservation and ecology will last for generations to come.
Often credited with bringing science to the natural area preservation movement in Arkansas, Tom Foti is considered by many to be the leading expert on all ecological matters in the state. Answering the call of Earth Day 1970, Foti left behind a PhD program and began volunteering at the Arkansas Ecology Center. During this time, he was contracted by the Arkansas Department of Planning to work on the Natural Area Plan, which was based on the first inventory of natural areas in Arkansas. The results of this work led to the creation of the ANHC in 1973 and continues to be used to this day.
After working as the director of the Arkansas Ecology Center for several years and returning to graduate school, Foti landed his dream job—Natural Community Ecologist for the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission. His area of concentration was the West Gulf Coastal Plain of southwestern Arkansas, a region where very little was known about its ecology at the time. Thanks to Foti’s work surveying the land, identifying significant natural areas, and increasing the overall understanding of the natural communities there, ANHC now has a number of important natural areas in the region. Foti would go on to spend 21 years at ANHC, and another 12 years working part-time before his official retirement in June of 2018.
During his long career in the heritage program, Foti helped shape what NatureServe is today. He worked on the development of the evolving natural heritage methodology that is used today, and he served on the first board of the Association for Biodiversity Information, the precursor to NatureServe. He would eventually work with NatureServe staff to develop an Arkansas natural community classification based on NatureServe Ecological Systems, and an Ecological Integrity Analysis (EIA) framework for evaluating occurrences of natural communities.
Foti also participated in a number of long-term projects, including the mapping of potential natural vegetation (hydrogeomorphic-based PNV) of eight million acres of eastern Arkansas, and eventually another eight million acres in adjacent areas of Mississippi and Louisiana.
While he is revered for his work as a scientist, Foti’s other talent is serving as a bridge between unlikely allies. He forged relationships between a wide variety of utility companies, forestry and timber industries, government agencies, and environmental groups that were often at odds over competing land management interests. These relationships would result in projects that previously seemed impossible, and the acquisition of thousands of acres of land to Arkansas’s System of Natural Areas.
This award is one of many Foti has received over his career. In honor of his work educating Arkansans of their state’s natural diversity, Foti was named Arkansas Wildlife Federation’s 1977 Conservation Educator of the Year. In 2005, he received the National Wetlands Award in the field of “State, Tribal, and Local Program Development” for his work identifying, understanding, and protecting Arkansas’s wetlands.
In response to winning this award, Foti says “Certainly, my Arkansas Wildlife Federation 2018 Conservationist of the Year award is not for my work in the last year but rather for my “body of work” over the last half Century. I am very proud of it.” We are equally proud of Tom!
To learn more about Tom Foti’s career, his favorite places in Arkansas, and the prairie that he “moved”, visit his dedication page on Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission’s website.