New York native helps manage local national forests

Mattie Thrasher
Oxford Stories

A New York native who has worked with the United States Forestry Service for 35 years with the philosophy of caring for the land and servicing the people is a park ranger in charge of the Holly Springs and Tombigbee National Forests.

Her father taught earth sciences. Her mother was a romantic, who appreciated the different colors of the sunset. And in fifth grade, Caren Briscoe was asked to write a paragraph about what she wanted to do. She wrote “forest ranger,” and never changed her mind. 

She has memories from age 3 of camping in the Adirondack Mountains, where the lake, trees, campfire, stars, and Northern Lights connected her to nature. Growing up, she played in the woods with her two sisters and brother, who freely roamed and used their imaginations.

Briscoe attended the same high school and elementary school. Her favorite classes were a combination of science and art classes. She learned painting, drawing and printmaking, and her progressive art teacher took the children to New York City art museums. “Taking the country kids to the city was a neat experience,” she said.

After high school, Briscoe earned a two-year forestry degree at a small college in New York. Next, she went to Virginia Tech and earned a four-year degree in natural resource management. During these years, she held multiple service jobs, such as a waitress, short-order cook, and dorm cleaner.

After earning a natural resource management degree, she attended Colorado State University and earned a master’s degree in forest planning and forest economics. She also began working with the United States Forest Service.

Shortly after college, Briscoe became engaged. On Christmas day, her husband wrapped a ring in a little box and placed it on the Christmas tree.

At her first job, four years after high school, she worked in Fort Collins, Colorado at a computer center in 1982. “Computers were not found scattered around offices, or probably any federal office in 1982,” she said. “They were just really starting. So, I came and kind of got on the ground floor with computer work with the Forest Service right from the start.”

The first national forest she worked for was the Bridger-Tetons National Forest in Jackson, Wyoming. It was fascinating because there were many amazing things to do there, such as downhill skiing and enjoying the sunshine.

Briscoe later moved to Shawnee Forest in Illinois, “a hidden forest.” She enjoyed discovering the area and the beauty it offered, although it was nothing like the Rockies.

Now, Briscoe is a supervisor for both the Holly Springs and Tombigbee National Forests, about 222 acres scattered across 10 counties in North Mississippi. There is not really a typical day in her job because of the mass of land she covers.

They manage wildlife, timber, recreation, water quality, lakes and fishery. She said driving to her two offices that are two hours apart is a challenge. There are many factors involved when she must make decisions about invasive species such as kudzu or the southern pine beetle.

John Townsend is the fire management officer for Holly Springs and Tombigbee National Forests. His job involves fire suppression across the country and prescribed burning. His father was a forester who worked for timbre companies. So, Townsend went to a community college and took a forestry program while co-oping.

Townsend knew Briscoe from when she worked in a different position, but once the park ranger retired, Briscoe became the district ranger.

“It has been really great working for Caren,” he said. “She cares about people and resources in the way she manages, and it’s been a really positive experience working for her.”

While doing a prescribed burning in Compartment 117 with another ranger in Baggy Bottoms, he recalled a time when Briscoe stopped by to see how the fire was going in each area. When she viewed the first fire in Compartment 117, the fire jumped over the road. Then when she went to see how the fire was going in Baggy Bottoms, the fire jumped across the creek.

Townsend joked that when Caren shows up, the fires jump outside the lines.

Briscoe said she’s learned over the years that it’s important to consider the perspectives and viewpoints of others.

“Just because it’s the way I make something, doesn’t mean the whole world always makes it,” she said. “It’s the broadening of my perspective of people and life.”

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