Francis Folkers grew up in the fresh air on a family farm in Missouri. But after moving to Florida, she found herself inside an office for three decades, managing a doctor’s practice. When she retired in 2007, she turned to the outdoors again and began volunteering at Oscar Scherer State Park. “I’m not good at sitting at home and just scrubbing the floors,” says Folkers. “A lot of people don’t want to go out and get dirty. But I don’t mind.”
Folkers arrives at the park at 6:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, volunteering 40 hours a week. “I need that reason to get up every morning,” she says. Her main job is managing park flora. Every day she battles exotic, invasive species such as cogongrass and Brazilian pepper trees by spraying and removing their seed heads, and she’s singlehandedly responsible for meeting 75 percent of the 1,400-acre park’s invasive plant removal goals.
She’s also known as the “Jay Whisperer” for her survey work on the Florida scrub jay, a native Florida bird whose numbers have declined 90 percent in the past century. Folkers is expert at locating the jay families but maintains that it isn’t hard to find the rare birds. “They’re curious. They will find you,” she says. In additional to removing invasive plants and conducting surveys, Folkers also monitors weather conditions, maintains trails, helps with prescribed forest burns and educates visitors.
Folkers says her work is full of magical moments. She’s seen gopher tortoises emerge from their burrows after a park burn and watched newborn fawns take their earliest steps. She’s experienced Florida’s seasons, eating berries in the spring and watching the grass turn gold in the fall.
A nominee for the Florida State Parks Adult Female of the Year Award in 2015, Folkers agonizes over the loss of Florida’s habitat to development. “We’re losing it all the time,” she says, and it makes her work at Oscar Scherer all the more urgent. “You’re a steward of the land.”