Auburn, Placer officials investigate legal jump from the famed Foresthill Bridge

Built to accompany the long-delayed and never-completed Auburn Dam, the unusually long legs of the Foresthill Bridge has teased parachute daredevils for decades.

With its forest-green deck 730 feet above the American River Canyon, the bridge is the fourth highest span in the United States. The bridge’s height, combined with its proximity to a major population center and an interstate highway, make it an extremely desirable site for BASE jumpers worldwide. (BASE is an acronym for the four categories of fixed objects enthusiasts jump from: Building, Antenna, Span, Earth.)

But while the span was immortalized in the action movie “xXx” in 2002 – with an extreme sport athlete played by Vin Diesel driving a stolen Corvette off the bridge and leaping from the car midflight to parachute to safety – there are very few legal opportunities for real life extreme sport athletes to jump from the span.

That may soon be changing.

Momentum seems to be building for a large-scale festival that would fulfill the dreams of thrill seekers and fill local coffers in the process. Some of those involved are targeting 2016 for an inaugural event, but others believe it might be able to launch sooner.

Currently, BASE jumping from the bridge is allowed only for approved filming events. The newfound traction toward allowing legal BASE jumping from the Foresthill Bridge is part of a broader push to turn the state-controlled Auburn State Recreation Area into an adventure sports mecca, with zip lines, mountain climbing, white water rafting, mountain biking and other sports taking advantage of the rugged topography. A motorized tram to cut down on traffic would transport people from downtown Auburn to adventure locations and to county wineries.

“The potential here for outdoor adventure tourism is very, very strong,” said Bob Richardson, Auburn’s city manager.

“Our interest is primarily economic,” added Dave Snyder, Placer County’s director of economic development.

To explore the idea of creating a one-day BASE jumping bonanza, two Auburn State Recreation Area supervisors and a Placer County economic development officer traveled to Fayetteville, W.Va., last weekend to observe that city’s Bridge Day. The one-day event drew an estimated 80,000 people to the New River Gorge Bridge – the third highest in the United States. The event, which started in 1980 as a celebration of the completion of the span, is the largest one-day event in the state and a cash cow, said Jason Bell, who organizes the BASE jumping portion of the event.

“Every hotel within 30 miles is sold out,” said Bell. “BASE jumpers are the stars of the show.”

He said 450 qualified jumpers paid a $10 fee to jump. Bell said eight countries and 40 states were represented and the event brings about $400,000 to the local economy.

A Foresthill Bridge Day, if timed right, would be the perfect West Coast complement to the Fayetteville event, Bell said.

“It’s the perfect West Coast BASE jumping object. If you open it up for 100 BASE jumpers, it will sell out immediately,” Bell said. “I’ll be one of them.”

While the sport is dangerous, Bridge Days can be conducted safely, Bell said. In its 34 years, the event has seen three fatalities. But Bell notes that the fatality rate has dropped as the sport has matured. To participate in Fayetteville Bridge Day, solo jumpers must have 100 prior parachute jumps to qualify. Participants sign a seven-page waiver that is also videotaped, Bell said.

One of the driving forces behind the local effort is Martin Tilly, owner of Asylum Designs, which sells BASE-jumping gear.

In the early years, conversations about opening the bridge to BASE jumping were shut down quickly. Now, thanks to time and potential economic benefits, he thinks the community has turned the corner. He said he understands the apprehension, but urged public officials to take advantage of the resource.

“It’s the modern day Gold Rush. We already have the structure. It’s already built,” Tilly said. “We have people knocking at the door.”

Creating a single-day event or broader legalization of BASE jumping from the Foresthill Bridge would require assistance from multiple agencies. The bridge is owned by Placer County, but the land below is federal land operated by state parks officials.

Some of the cooperation required was on display Sept. 7 for a one-day celebration dubbed “Adventure Auburn.” The event’s aim was to inform the community about the vast assortment of recreational opportunities available there, said Bruce Cosgrove, CEO of the Auburn Chamber of Commerce. With a film permit, 24 BASE jumpers were allowed to parachute from the span.

Cosgrove said watching BASE jumping was more intense than watching skydivers because you can see the jump from beginning to end. He stressed that while BASE jumping has the potential to be an international draw, the long-term plan is for a broad expansion of adventure recreation opportunities in the Auburn area. That plan would involve some form of mass transit shuttling visitors to adventure destinations, Placer County wineries and to shopping and dining areas in Auburn.