PROFILE: Teresa Robbins, President of the Cape Horn Conservancy

February 27, 2012

by Martha Martin

Teresa Robbins, President of the Cape Horn Conservancy (photo Martha Martin)

In her cozy log home next to the Washougal River, Teresa Robbins, President of the Cape Horn Conservancy  board of directors sipped tea as she talked about her background, the Cape Horn Conservancy, the Trail, and the Trail’s connection to the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

Robbins’ trail to The Trail

Teresa Robbins first visited the Gorge over 24 years ago, while she and her husband Keith were on their honeymoon.  Today, looking younger than her 63 years, she described how lush and alive the area felt during that rainy May, having no idea that they would someday move to this area.

The mother of four daughters, two step-daughters, and grandmother of 12 originally went to a junior college on a music scholarship to become a singer.  Before she completed her degree, she started her family, and after four children, began working in Idaho with the Department of Employment as a Training Specialist.  She did workshops for displaced workers, assisting them with resumes and interview skills.

While in Idaho, she attended a workshop about Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP).   Robbins was intrigued by what she learned, and saw an opportunity to help her sister, who had lupus, and was not making progress with conventional care.  She made the decision to travel from Idaho to Utah for training.  This was challenging, since she was now a single mom.

She was able to help her sister, and she went on to become a master practitioner and trainer.  She devoted 20 years working with people on their health issues using NLP.

When she moved here, Robbins says she gave up her practice.  She saw a few people who “found me”, but officially retired last year.

The beginning of the “gang of eleven”

Robbins became involved in the community by becoming a local volunteer fire fighter and EMT.  During this time, she was approached by another fire fighter, who needed help with a county comprehensive plan.  Robbins and her husband jumped on board to help, and found themselves involved in a controversy with the Skamania County Commissioners.

According to Robbins, the commissioners wanted to rezone a 70 acre area to commercial zoning without holding a public hearing.  A group of eleven people formed to file suit, which resulted in stopping the zone plans.

Through this process, Robbins met two women who were “tied into the beginnings of that undeveloped but hugely potentialized trail”, referring to the Cape Horn Trail.  Robbins saw this as a way to become constructively involved, and jumped in.

Negotiations began between various agencies, partners, and neighbors directly affected by

Teresa Robbins and the Cape Horn Trail sign (Courtesy CHC)

the trail.  The group listened to locals, making sure concerns were met.  Partnerships were formed with the Forest Service, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, and the Washington Trails Association.

“That’s were we got started,” said Robbins. “It’s been really a remarkable collaboration of efforts.”

According to Robbins, the Forest Service approved the trail in February of 2010, making it official.

“That’s where Cape Horn Conservancy, or CHC, had to be[come] official so we could be care takers of the trail”, said Robbins.

Robbins said she is the “head of the pack right now”, even though she did not seek this position.

A Trail becomes reality

Cape Horn Trail Map (click picture for additional map information - Courtesy CHC)

There were some obstacles in the beginning.  According to Robbins, some neighbors were afraid there would be trash from hikers and danger from campfires.  Lots of negotiating happened, which included the Forest Service.

They eventually agreed that campfires and motorized vehicles would not be allowed, and there would not be a lot of lighting atop the trail.  The intent was to keep things as natural as possible, minimizing the impact on the lives of trail neighbors.

To prevent tour buses going up private roads, the county posted a no commercial bus zone.

To increase access for those with disabilities, a flatter portion of the trail has been designated which will accommodate people and give them access to views of the Gorge.  Eventually, said Robbins,  people will be able to use wheel chairs as well as electric carts.

“The intent”, says Robbins ” is for everyone to get out and move.”

Current trail development

At the time of this interview, Robbins was taking what she called a “winter respite”.  CHC was, however, getting in two requests for grant funding, and according to Robbins,  two board members were “stepping up and doing this”.

Cape Horn Trail volunteers working on the trail (Courtesy CHC)

Last year saw the opening of the Nancy Russell Overlook dedication in partnership with the Friends of the Gorge.  The Conservancy also built a large bridge on a portion of the “lower trail” which crosses a creek.  This trail will support equestrian traffic in partnership with the Washington Trails Association.

Robbins said that the small size of CHC has made it difficult for them to obtain insurance which would allow them to sponsor events, set up trail hikes, and cover maintenance work parties.  In 2012, they were able to obtain a grant from a Portland organization that will assist in obtaining their own insurance.

A partnership with Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and CHC, along with lobbying efforts by the Forest Service, helped push forward safety improvements with two pedestrian underpasses that connect the trail under SR-14.  According to Robbins, these underpasses will make hiking much safer when hikers want to cross over “an otherwise usafe SR-14”.

Becoming a 501 (c)3; Incentive for donors

Robbins described the process of obtaining the CHC 501(c)3 status as an amazingly quick process, which is unusual, according to Robbins.

” My husband and I are a good team. He’s research, big picture.  I’m detailed oriented and action, so we got a lot done.”  Robbins added that having no actual employees may also have made things more expedited.

Robbins sees the benefit of tax deductible donations, which can help inspire people to be more supportive.

Her focus for the upcoming year is to invite people to join as members of CHC.  Her goal is to get 100 sustaining members, which she said will give CHC enough money for insurance, tools, for sponsoring events, and to be a self-sustaining and responsible organization.

“We don’t want to be huge; 100 will be enough to manage.  From Washougal to Stevenson,  [This will] give us enough people to draw from for a variety of work events, hiking events, picnics.”  said Robbins.  “We just want to take care of the trail.”

The Trail and the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area connection

Cape Horn Trail hikers enjoying the Gorge view (Courtesy CHC)

With the trail lying withing the boundaries of the Scenic Gorge area, it benefits from the protection of the Gorge Act.  Development of partnerships, such as that with the Forest Service, serve a purpose for both partners; the Forest Service manages the Scenic Area, and struggling with reduced capacity and resources, they need assistance by local groups to help maintain the trail.

According to Robbins, the Forest Service had 16 summer employees in 2011 to manage the Gorge area.  In 2012, that number has dropped to only four.   Groups like the CHC are invaluable to the Forest Service, as they continue their purpose, mission, and duties in the maintenance of the trail.

This, according to Robbins, is true stewardship, and can only help enhance the utilization of the Gorge area as it continues under its protected status.  The main interest in the trail is that people can experience the scenic area in an intimate way.

“How often do you get a chance to be part of something that is so special to everyone?” said Robbins.

The Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area has been rated number 6 as a travel destination in the world by the National Geographic Traveler.

“Not many places like this exist,” said Robbins.

Part of a Great Team

The Cape Horn Conservancy Board is made up of diverse and talented individuals, according to Robbins.  Assisting Teresa Robbins is Cyndi Soliz, Vice President.  Soliz works for Skamania County with the Noxious Weed board, and has knowledge of invasive plant species.  Robbins describes Cyndi as a “hard worker”.

Elaine Pfeifer, Secretary, is an elected member of the Washougal School Board, and brings a background in operations management.

Kathy Huntington, Treasurer, works in real estate and has advocated for the trail, along with her spouse Dan Huntington, for over 15 years.

Other board members include Larry Keister, who is involved in Gorge protection as well as advocating for government accountability and brings many community connections.   Renee Tkach, who was CHC’s first Secretary, offers her experience in an advisory capacity.

The Cape Horn Conservancy has many volunteers that are also involved in ongoing events and activities.

Trail impact on the Economy

Robbins sees the trail as a catalyst to improve the local economy.  Partnerships, such as the one with Skamania County, demonstrate that even people on opposite sides of an issue can come together when a project benefits everyone.

The trail, in Robbins estimation, will introduce people to the Western Washington State side of the Gorge, including Stevenson, Bonneville, local Gorge artists, and all those things that connect to and are visible from the trail.

Robbins said the Cape Horn Trail is part of a larger plan; a campaign by the Friends of the Gorge aimed at creating a linked network of new hiking trails in the Columbia River Gorge called Gorge Towns to Trails.

She sees the possibility that this could become “very European”, with people taking long vacations, staying at local Bed and Breakfasts or hotels, hiking the trail and really connecting with local artisans, businesses, and restaurants.

According to Robbins,  it all ties into tourism.

“I think that [tourism] is the salvation of this area.  We could cut all the trees, put up industrial wind turbines, but [then] that would not be this area, would it.  There is enough of a shrinking supply of this kind of area in the world that you need to have somewhere where people can come and heal their souls.  And I think that’s what this area is all about, and therefore I think it will, if the towns play their cards right and are welcoming to the tourists in a healthy genuine way, I think it will be the salvation of this area,” said Robbins.

Boots on the Ground

Cape Horn Trail view of the Gorge (Courtesy CHC)

Robbins and her husband Keith have done a lot of work on the trail.  She said the best way to experience the Gorge is ” boots on the ground.”  Getting out on the trail brings people in contact with all that the Gorge has to offer.

Robbins laughed as she described their motives for working diligently on the trail.

“We [she and her husband] are such responsible people, and someday we might say that our responsibility is to our old age and health, but you feel so good, you feel tired but you’ve accomplished something.  It’s a way of giving back.  We like to be able to contribute to the world in our golden years, and people from all over the world come here.  This is the Washington side of the Gorge, and we have not had as many beautiful spots renowned on the Washington side, and yet [Cape Horn] rivals Crown Point.  It’s really special.”

Teresa Robbins can be contacted at 360-837-1089, or email: capehornconservancy@gmail.com.  The website is: http://www.capehorntrail.org/index.html.  People on the contact list will receive periodic email updates.