Bungee Jump Outfit’s Future Is Left Hanging
Every weekend, dozens of people scramble for several miles along a boulder-strewn creek to the Bridge to Nowhere, a concrete span deep in the Angeles National Forest and the site of Southern California’s only commercial bungee jumping venue. These adventurers are charged up to $127 and lectured on safe jumping, but what they are not told is that the whole business is illegal--that the operators don’t have the required permits, liability insurance or permission from the owner of the property to be there.
The enterprise is further complicated by questions about who owns the bridge--the U.S. Forest Service or the descendants of a family that once ran a gold mine there and has claimed ownership for more than 90 years.
Now, as state safety officials say they are moving to shut down the jump site, El Segundo-based Bungee America is ceasing operations on the Bridge to Nowhere, says its owner, Ron Jones. Bungee America is one of only three commercial bungee-jumping operations in the state.
The state Division of Occupational Safety and Health began investigating after receiving questions from a Times reporter who visited the site.
“As soon as we found out he [Jones] was operating without a permit, we began taking steps to put a halt to that,” said Susan Gard, spokeswoman for Cal/OSHA. “He’s clearly and fully aware that he is not supposed to be doing this. He knows he is operating illegally. The bottom line is now that people’s safety could be in danger.”
Gard said that although Bungee America has a clean safety record, “We don’t have the opportunity to ensure that for people” without inspecting its maintenance records and making sure it has insurance.
Records show that Bungee America’s permit expired in May 2000. As recently as last May, Jones led groups of up to 60 people to the spot for all-day jumping. The company, Gard said, also lacked permits in 1996, 1998 and 1999.
Jones, 39, acknowledged last week that he lacks the necessary permits and insurance but said he was in the process of obtaining a $2-million umbrella insurance policy that would cover jumps from the bridge and from two mobile towers he sets up at state fairs around the country.
An avid outdoorsman, Jones has been featured on “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” and other television shows for his bungee prowess. Along with members of his company, Jones helps with Hollywood stunts and has appeared in numerous commercials.
Jones has launched people off a small metal platform hung from the Bridge to Nowhere since 1993.
Each jumper was weighed and then attached to a harness connected to heavy elastic cords. Just before taking flight, jumpers were advised to focus on a target planted on a rocky ridge directly across the 100-foot gorge spanned by the bridge. Jones said his company was selling “adrenaline.”
Last week, Jones insisted he was on the verge of legitimizing his business.
“Let me just say your timing is just terrible,” Jones told The Times. “Within 30 days, we will have everything arranged through the state and through Gail [Saunders, the property owner].”
But Jones’ problems may not be so easily solved.
Saunders said her agreement with Bungee America expired two years ago and Jones had not called her about renewing it until last month. The Santa Barbara resident said she was surprised that people had been jumping off the 65-year-old bridge on her property.
“I am concerned, very concerned,” Saunders, 53, said. “I don’t need this.”
Meanwhile, the Forest Service is preparing to survey the property to determine whether Saunders, in fact, owns it.
Its officials say they suspect the claim of ownership is based on a fraudulent 1884 land survey.
The Bureau of Land Management in Sacramento is expected to soon complete an estimate for a new survey requested by the Forest Service, which could cost between $50,000 to $200,000, said Lance Bishop, the chief surveyor for the bureau in California.
Bishop said records show the bridge is close to the property line and current property lines seem suspect, he added, because the 1884 survey does not match topographical maps.
More than 100 mines were scattered around the area when federal surveyors were sent out to California in the 1880s to plot property lines between private claims and federal land.
“Surveyors were fairly colorful characters who would survey the property from a very comfortable bar stool or shade tree,” said George Duffy, wilderness and trails manager for the Forest Service’s San Gabriel River Ranger District, which oversees the East Fork area where the bridge is located.
Bishop said completing an accurate survey won’t be easy. Not only is the land extremely rugged, but modern-day forest surveyors have not found any cornerstones, markings used long ago to establish boundaries.
Gail Saunders said she was never contacted by the Forest Service about its interest in a new survey.
“Why do they want the bridge all of a sudden? Why are they doing this? I didn’t think there was anything to be cleared up.”
Bishop said federal officials are concerned about potential liability for jumping accidents.
“The liability to the government is very high, but if it’s not on Forest [Service] land, then the owner would have the liability,” Bishop said, adding, “We really don’t care who owns the property.”
The government’s concerns matter little to bungee jumper Seraphine Gott. The 29-year-old Redondo Beach resident said she would go again with Bungee America, despite its permit woes. “It doesn’t really make any difference to me,” Gott said of the permits and insurance. “They were so professional. I believe they really know what they are doing.”
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In the Middle of Nowhere
While federal surveyors are trying to sort out ownership, a bungee-jumping company has been illegally using the bridge for its jumps. The state is investigating and moving to shut down
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