Over the weekend, several readers wrote into Modern Hiker concerned about a seemingly last-minute addition to a Los Angeles County zoning plan that would change the zoning of Bungee America’s 50 acres of private land in San Gabriel Canyon (an area popularly known as the Bridge to Nowhere) from Agricultural to Commercial. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on the zoning plan on Wednesday, November 12 – lending the issue a sense of urgency.
A commercial zoning would allow the owners to operate a wide variety of activities, ranging from outdoor dance pavilions to pony rides (seriously!), and there were accusations of planned midnight raves and other activities that mostly likely would not fit under your definition of a wilderness experience. After digging into the story a bit, Modern Hiker feels the issue has been clouded by some miscommunication and hyperbole – but if you still have questions you’d like answered you don’t have to panic: a public comment period is on the way.
Part of this stems from a long unsolved issue of just where, exactly, the Sheep Mountain Wilderness ends and where the private property begins. A 2001 article in the L.A. Times notes the maps used to determine the hundreds of private mining claims in the San Gabriels were notoriously inaccurate – and apparently the borders of the old gold mining claim where the Bridge to Nowhere resides and Bungee America has been operating since 1993 still haven’t been sussed out.
Ben White has been trekking in the San Gabriels for years and is very passionate about the San Gabriel Canyon. In a message to Modern Hiker, he accused the company that runs the bungee jumping operation – Bungee America – of operating outside the rules of law and sidestepping the regulatory process when they recently attempted to install a zipline. “That zipline was staked on (Sheep Mountain) Wilderness territory,” he said. “Volunteers observed this and reported it to the Forest Service, prompting a visit by the Forest Service and the County.”
White said the Forest Service sent a letter stating the anchor had to be removed using Wilderness approved methods but that Bungee America hasn’t complied with the Forest Service. That L.A. Times article states Bungee America hasn’t always been expressly operating by the rules (although they do have a sterling safety record nonetheless), and White was concerned this new zoning change and recent zipline attempt were ill omens for the company’s plans for the site – especially since the Angeles National Forest and Sheep Mountain Wilderness that surround the private land are now part of the new San Gabriel Mountains National Monument.
Bungee America owner Ron Jones, who owns that 50 acres of private land, says it’s all much ado about nothing. “We started to install a zipline so that OSHA could do the inspection and give it the OK, but they were already aware we were doing it,” he told Modern Hiker in a phone interview. When we asked Jones if the zipline was entirely on private land, he said “We’re working with the Forest Service to determine that. We believe it’s all on private land but if it isn’t, it will either be taken down or the Forest Service will decide to partner with us and issue a conditional use permit like they do for (nearby) Burro Canyon Shooting Park.”
White said the Forest Service has not been able to do an accurate survey of the area. We reached out to the Forest Service for comment but have not yet heard back.
As for the zoning change, Jones said his company did not request or initiate the change and only found out about it within the last year even though the Plan itself has been in the works since 2007. Although a zoning change to Commercial would allow many new developments on the property, Jones said he’s only interested in the zipline. “Right now we’re zoned Agricultural, and if you look at what’s allowed on Agricultural zones that might seem pretty crazy, too.” (Agricultural zones can house a broad range of industry from foster family homes to oil wells, polo fields, and even chinchilla slaughterhouses).
White says Bungee America’s recreational business is illegal with the plot’s currently zoned Agricultural status, but Jones seemed confident he was not violating any laws. He said OSHA and the State Licensing Authority of California had been brought in over 20 years ago and gave the company the OK, and they’ve been coming back for annual inspections since then. Jones admitted that he could have petitioned for an earlier change in zoning status, but because he had so many organizations sign off on his operation, he didn’t think there was a problem. “Frankly, we didn’t know it, OSHA didn’t know it, and Regional Planning didn’t know it – but the area didn’t allow recreation. It was only brought up to us earlier this year.”
Jones said he was frustrated with the criticisms of his business from environmentalists and said although a privately owned commercial operation inside a Wilderness may not fit with their vision of what a wilderness area should be, they may not realize how much his company does for the region. Jones said his employees regularly clean the area of the San Gabriel River below the Bridge – as well as the trail through the Wilderness. They also provide free filtered water, shade, and first aid to hikers – the vast majority of whom are not paying customers for the company. Jones noted Bungee America employees and customers use a private outhouse on his property and that all the waste is removed from the canyon, and that the Bridge’s emergency satellite phone has only had to be used for non-customers. He also said he loses hundreds of dollars a year giving first aid to dogs, who often scorch their paws on the trail’s hot rocks.
Jones said it’s personally important to him to share this area with the public to help inspire future wilderness trips and a love for the land, but if Bungee America went away it would be a loss for the region – in jobs, in maintenance and care for the canyon, and possibly for access to the Bridge itself. “This place is greater than we are, it’s been shared with the public since before we were here and we want to keep it that way. We’ve allowed unfettered access for 25 years. If everybody likes what’s been going on, then they need to support us, not oppose us.”
When asked about the effort to stall the zoning plan at the Board of Supervisors, Jones said people shouldn’t worry. “(The Plan) is going through whether we want it to or not – we’re just a very small part of a very big plan – but if this goes through then the public comment period happens.” If a zone change or conditional use permit does happen after the public comment, Jones said they would explicitly spell out what is allowed on his property. “And if it’s not on there,” he said, “we can’t do it.”
Jones also urged anyone who had concerns to contact Bungee America. “If we can’t address your concerns,” he said, “you’ll still have every opportunity in the planning process.”