From Air Force to Fish and Wildlife, Dedicated to Duty
Francisca Gutierrez knows what’s important: family, country, Alaska — and good food
Francisca came to Alaska by a long and circuitous route, one marked by many stops along the way. She grew up on a ranch outside Goliad, a small Texas town about 90 miles southeast of San Antonio. From there she traveled to North Dakota, then Australia, South Korea, Iceland, the Azores, Germany — and finally, Alaska. But she was no idle globe trotter. Francisca — known universally as Fran — roamed the world while serving her country as a member of the U.S. Armed Forces.
“I have six brothers and sisters, and we grew up very poor,” says Fran, a Law Enforcement Support Assistant with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Alaska Region.
“I knew that the chances of my family helping me with college were slim to none — so I signed up with the Air Force as soon as I graduated from high school. I wanted to be independent, but I also wanted to do something for my country.”
Fran’s father was an old school parent, loving but extremely strict. So how did she break the news to him? “My recruiter came to the house and explained it to my dad,” she says, “and he said he was okay with it. I was 18, so he gave me his blessing and wished me the best. “
The Air Force was the focal point of Fran’s life for the following 22 years. She met her husband, fellow airman Julian Cabrera, and had two children while serving: her oldest son Daniel is now 17, and sibling David is 13. She was devoted to her work in office and personnel management, and she served as the Career Adviser at Elmendorf Air Force Base outside Anchorage during the last three years of her armed forces career.
“I loved my work, I loved helping people, and I worked up to 12 hours a day, six days a week,” says Fran. “But one day my youngest son said to me, ‘Mom, I never see you. I never get to eat lunch with you — I miss you.’ And it hit me like a runaway train. I made an overnight decision to retire. I didn’t want to be a 50 percent service member, and I didn’t want to be a 50 percent mom.”
Fran devoted most of her time to her kids after leaving the Air Force — but she also knew she needed to work.
“I was volunteering at the schools and church so much I think I was beginning to drive folks a little crazy,” she laughs.
She worked as a part-time civilian employee at Elmendorf for several months until a friend told her about an office management position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She applied, and was offered the job. She accepted — but with a caveat.
“My husband was on a short tour in Turkey at that time, and I said I’d love to work for Fish and Wildlife but I had young kids at home, and they always had to come first. I said I had to have lunch with each of my sons at least once a week — which I still do, by the way — but when I was on the job, I’d always give it my all. Everyone was good with that, so I started work at the Office of Migratory Birds in 2012.”
Fran dedicated herself to the mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with the same commitment she mustered in protecting her country throughout her Air Force career. She credits Fish and Wildlife employees with expanding her emotional connection to the natural word in general — and Alaska specifically.
“The Migratory Bird staffers are completely passionate about their jobs, and their passion is infectious,” she says. “They do demanding and important work throughout the year, and when they get time off they usually go on birding vacations. They’ve taken me out on surveys, and I did what I could to help, though I’m by no means a great birder. But they let me see the beauty and the power of Alaska and its wildlife, and I’ll always be grateful for that. It’s opened up a whole new chapter in my life.”
Pete Probasco, the retired USFWS Alaska Assistant Regional Director for the Migratory Bird and State Programs, observes that Fran’s appreciation of the office staff was enthusiastically reciprocated.
“Her commitment was 110 percent,” says Pete. “You gave her a task and you didn’t need to follow up.”
Pete recalls that his office once hosted a week-long meeting of the East Asian — Australasian Flyway Partnership, a lynchpin organization in global migratory bird conservation.
“It has 22 member nations and NGOs, and this was an extremely important conference,” Pete says. “Fran was our key organization person. It was an incredibly demanding and complicated job, but because of her everything went off without a hitch.”
Fran ultimately transferred to the Law Enforcement Office of USFWS Alaska, where she again encountered an unwavering commitment to a critical mission. Alaska’s 1,593,438 square miles are patrolled by 14 special agents and four inspectors. The people comprising this thin green line are charged with preventing a wide range of crimes against wildlife, from poaching to international trafficking in animal parts. It takes a special type of individual to do such work — and it takes a special kind of person to make sure staff needs are met, from travel and overtime scheduling to supply requisition. That’s Fran’s job — and she proved a nonpareil at her work.
“She’s literally the most caring person I know,” says Rory Stark, the Special Agent in Charge of the Alaska Law Enforcement Office. “She’s always ready to help in any way she can, and she’s particularly fond of feeding people. And we’re particularly fond of eating her food. People are always stopping by here to get fed.”
Douglas Mills, the Regional Business Advisor for USFWS Alaska, shares his colleagues’ assessment of Fran.
“She worked in our office as an administrative professional, and we were all struck with her tremendous gift for hospitality,” Douglas says. “She served as President of our Regional Office Activity and Recreation Team, and she always went above and beyond when it came to helping people out, to getting them whatever they needed, and just generally taking care of them in every way possible.”
As Rory Stark observes — and as virtually everyone who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska knows – food is integral to Fran’s hospitality style. She’s particularly renowned for her breakfast burritos, but she plies eager staffers with a wide range of other dishes, most rooted in the Mexican culinary traditions she learned as a child.
“When I was growing up, we raised all our own vegetables, we kept chickens, and we butchered our own livestock,” Fran says. “Food was the main focus of our family life. I loved cooking, and I still do. I’m an experimental cook. What I cook one day may be different the next, depending on how I feel, how the spices taste to me. But I always want to serve the best food possible. That’s how I show my family — and my extended family at work — that I care about them. I’m always happiest when I see people eating the food I’ve cooked.”
How long have you been with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?
What do you think people would find most surprising about your job?
My primary duties are office management, but there’s also a lot of public contact — in many cases, I may be the first person a member of the public talks to when reaching out to the Service. And I take that very seriously. I want to make sure people come away happy from those initial conversations.
How do Alaska’s wild places sustain and invigorate you?
Everything is constantly changing here. The weather, the light, the land and the water — sometimes you feel like you’re living through two seasons in one day. It’s incredibly exciting.
When I’m not at work I’m…
Spending time with my family and volunteering. I volunteer at church, my sons’ schools and with the Alaska Youth Orchestra.
What’s your foremost concern about Alaska’s wildlife resources?
The crime. It never stops, it never sleeps. And the people involved in wildlife crimes can be incredibly creative and inventive, so bringing them to justice is a challenge. It’s a never-ending, 24/7 job.
What’s the greatest misconception visitors have about Alaska?
That it’s the Wild West, that we don’t have modern facilities and we’re forced to live under primitive conditions. Believe me, we’ve moved along with the times. It’s very comfortable living here.
What’s your most treasured memory regarding Alaska or your job?
It’s not just one thing. It’s more about being exposed to nature in all its glory. When you’re in the military you have this tunnel vision. You almost live in a box. That’s not really bad, because your mission is everything — you have to do your job, and do it well. And I loved the Air Force. But it was also wonderful to come out of the tunnel, to experience the beauty of Alaska and work with the incredible people who are protecting it.
What advice would you give people who are interested in a career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?
Don’t be afraid. Just try it. Don’t let a job description scare you off, and don’t be discouraged by any physical limitations. It takes a lot of hands, a lot of different people with different skills, to get this work done. You don’t have to be able to identify every bird in Alaska to help protect migratory birds. Just give yourself the opportunity to make a difference.
Glen Martin is freelance writer/former San Francisco Chronicle environmental reporter.
In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.