Biologist’s work leads to cooperative conservation

By Kevin Tate/Outdoors Writer

TUPELO – The fires that clear dead grass and underbrush to make way for new growth and new life, along with the organized groups that manage them, helped bring statewide recognition to one Tupelo man recently.
John Gruchy, private lands habitat coordinator with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, was named Wildlife Conservationist of the Year by the Mississippi Wildlife Federation last week.
Gruchy, an MDWFP biologist since 2007, wears a wide variety of hats in his role with the state, but he attributes the recent recognition to work he’s done helping private landowners learn to do their own prescribed burning.
For many of Mississippi’s wild places, including pine plantations and open brush and grasslands, periodic burning is one of the most effective and valuable tools at their owner’s disposal. It’s a way to prepare seeds to germinate while removing dead material. It also short-circuits the sort of wildfires that can do serious damage by preventing the build-up of excess brush and other fuel on the ground.
It’s a management practice that traces its roots to those employed by the continent’s first human inhabitants, and it’s good for flora and fauna alike.
Prescribed fires do, however, require quite a bit of knowledge, organization and manpower to manage. To that end, part of Gruchy’s recent efforts have led to the creation of the first landowner-led prescribed burn association in the South.
There are state-directed programs that offer grants and other aid to help landowners burn, as well as private companies that will do prescribed burning for a fee, but Gruchy said the private associations that allow landowners to handle the work on their own are the real future of the whole effort.
“It’s teaching a man to fish versus giving a man a fish,” Gruchy said. “Landowner-led burn associations are pretty common in Texas and Oklahoma, but this one in Marshall County is the first one in the South.”
Though a formal association, registered as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, the group is able to maintain insurance and apply for fire equipment grants but more importantly, it’s able to bring adjoining landowners together to manage their properties’ burning schedules regularly and as a group. If burning a property needs 10 people on hand to do it safely, and you have nine neighbors whose property also requires the same, burning chores can be handled collectively.
“It really makes a difference when neighbors talk across the fence,” Gruchy said.