Sublette County Denies Resort Expansion For Wall Street Billionaire Joe Ricketts

In denying billionaire Joe Ricketts' proposal to build a "Little Jackson Hole" in rural Wyoming, Sublette County Commissioner Doug Vickrey said, I would like Mr. Ricketts to know that with all his wealth, there are some things in this world money cannot buy, and by God Im one of them."

Jake Nichols

March 13, 202310 min read

Jackson Fork Ranch 3 13 23
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

The sleepy agricultural enclave of Bondurant, along with the Upper Hoback Valley and the rest of Sublette County in west-central Wyoming, is situated close enough to Jackson Hole to feel the heat shimmering off its blistering real estate market

By intention, the loose-knit community has shunned the brand of boujee that has Jackson Hole overrun with tourists the Travel & Tourism Board Joint Powers Board in Teton County has altered its message in an attempt to attract fewer bodies and larger billfolds. 

They call it sustainable visitation.

Bondurant buckaroos want nothing to do with it. 

Left: Joe Ricketts (AP File Photo). Right: A map showing property owned by Joe Ricketts south of Bondurant, Wyoming.

Westward Ho

Then comes the guy who invented online day trading back in the 1990s, opening Wall Street to anyone with a laptop. 

Today, Bondurant billionaire Joe Ricketts’ personal net worth tops the gross domestic product of some 46 countries. 

Until Ricketts arrived, the biggest thing going here was the annual Bondurant barbecue held every June at the local church. No need to specify which church, there’s just the one.

With all his wealth, even Ricketts may be priced out of Jackson Hole. 

Instead, he’s buying and building his own and calling it “Little Jackson Hole” 35 miles south of the real McCoy. Ricketts planted his flag along a bumpy U.S. Forest Service road most people in the 22 other Wyoming counties have never heard of or driven on.

His modest spread spans the first 9 miles of the Upper Hoback 23-174, a contiguous swath of Ricketts ranchland broken only by a smattering of private residences he has not yet been able to accumulate. 

It takes a full 20 minutes in an SUV to drive from one end of Ricketts’ property to the other. 

Ricketts owns two ranches – Jackson Fork Ranch and the Dead Shot Ranch – which are connected by the county-maintained Upper Hoback Road (Forest Road 30700, aka Upper Hoback 23-174). It is the only public road from Highway 191 to follow the Hoback River west. 

The road is used by other landowners, hunters, hikers, outfitters and recreationists headed to the Upper Hoback trailhead and beyond. 

The road also provides access to Bridger-Teton National Forest various permittees, including for local ranchers who turn out livestock on surrounding public allotments for summer grazing.

Ricketts says he enjoys the solitude and wildness of the Upper Hoback just as it exists. The “rugged beauty of the American West,” he says, stirs his soul as it does others who lay eyes upon this part of the country. 

Lately, Ricketts has stirred the pot with a master plan to develop his property into something of a luxury lodge resort where he hopes to entertain spendy suits looking for an off-the-grid getaway from the grind of making money. 

He sees it as opening the West to the world.

Neighbors call it tone deaf.

Sublette County Commissioner Doug Vickery, left, and Joe Ricketts in an AP file photo.

County Commissioners Pump The Brakes

Ricketts founded TD Ameritrade. 

Forbes pegs his net worth at $3.4 billion. The 81-year-old said his Jackson Fork Ranch is his No. 1 asset and something he would like to leave his grandkids one day. Ricketts’ four children are majority owners of the Chicago Cubs baseball team.

Ricketts was dealt a setback last week in his ongoing bid to build a massive luxury ranch resort in the Upper Hoback about midway between Jackson and Pinedale, in a valley he has taken to calling ”Little Jackson Hole.”

During a March 7 meeting that exceeded six hours, Sublette County commissioners rejected a conditional use permit (CUP) that would have granted Ricketts permission to expand his exclusive guest ranch operations by nearly triple, from 478 to 1,300 acres, and allow for up to 215 nightly guests – twice the population of the town of Bondurant.

Sent packing by a 3-2 vote to deny, longtime commissioner Doug Vickrey said, “I would like Mr. Ricketts to know that with all his wealth there are some things in this world money cannot buy, and by God I’m one of them.”

Ranchers Vs. The Rich

It is not the first stumble for the multibillionaire-turned-bison rancher and his master plan to open one of the most remote and pristine wilderness areas in Wyoming to commercial development.

His business maneuverings along the Upper Hoback Road outside of Bondurant have galvanized neighbors, conservationists and county leaders in opposing what some claim is the second coming of Jackson Hole.

Ricketts was denied an upzone for a 478-acre subsection of his Jackson Fork Ranch in 2020. With help from his agent Morgan Fischer, Ricketts returned with a scaled back plan to use only 56 acres where he would build a 20-room luxury lodge along with eight cabins of unspecified size. 

On Dec. 7, 2021, the Sublette County Library overflowed with more than 100 people speaking in opposition of that plan with 60 more chiming in online. 

Speaker after speaker raked Ricketts over the coals and pleaded with their elected officials to keep Bondurant and the Upper Hoback rural and agriculture-based. Tourism killed Jackson Hole, they argued, don’t let it happen here.

“Look north. Look at what happened to Jackson. It’s ruined. What’s happened there is a tragedy,” said neighbor DJ Kominsky. “This zoning is similar and will change the character of the Bondurant area forever. You will never get it back. 

“We have a treasure. Sublette County has a treasure. Don’t let it go to ruin. I beg you, please don’t approve this plan.”

Tracy Tominc fretted, “We are not Jackson. We don’t want to be Jackson. There is no good reasoning for jamming more humans up the Hoback. Less is best all the way around and that’s the reason we all go there and live here.”

In addition to neighbors relishing the solitude of the area, conservationists and wildlife activists also voiced concern over proposed development at the ranch. 

Joshua Coursey, president of Muley Fanatic Foundation, expressed his concern about developing a corridor crucial to historic mule deer migration from Hoback to the Red Desert. That migration route is under state protection by an executive order from Gov. Mark Gordon, he reminded commissioners.

“Mule deer are very vulnerable to change,” Coursey warned. “It’s very clear the intent here is a self-serving business proposition that will open the door to more of the same.”

On a 3-2 vote, Ricketts was eventually granted the zone change reclassifying his property as Recreational Service 1 from Agricultural 1, allowing the landowner to raise fewer bison and more buffalo nickels.

Reaction from neighbors was felt immediately. Residents in Bondurant banded together and filed a lawsuit, which was recently fought off successfully by Ricketts’ lawyers.

A spectacular view at the Jackson Fork Ranch. (Courtesy Photo)

Another Bite Of The Apple

Those worried about precedent-setting decisions in northern Sublette County were proved right by Ricketts himself, who was back on the planning department’s agenda with another plan for expanding his operations in late 2022. 

In addition to asking for the previous 56-acre guest ranch zoning approval to be expanded to his entire Jackson Fork property (1,300 acres), Ricketts also proposed to include his newly acquired Dead Shot Ranch – a non-contiguous 156-acre holding immediately southwest of the original ranch. 

Weeks before Ricketts’ CUP application was to go before county commissioners, the billionaire trader announced a $1 million donation to the Sublette County Health Foundation to help build the county’s first hospital. 

Ricketts also was instrumental in the Noble Basin oil-and-gas buyout in 2012. Plains Exploration and Production Co. sold its leases on 58,000 acres of pristine land in the Upper Hoback for a reported $8.75 million. Ricketts later claimed he pumped millions into the deal that halted drilling.

Commissioners were unmoved. After hours of deliberation last Tuesday, Vickrey cut to the chase.

“I can tell you right now this job doesn’t pay near enough. It’s 5:30, and I don’t know about everybody else, but I’m sort of getting tired of this. We’ve spent half a working day on this. 

“It’s time to get to a yes or no,” Vickrey added before making a motion to deny. “I think today Sublette County is at a crossroads. At some point we have to draw the line.”

The resulting vote went 3-2 to deny Ricketts the expansion. It was met with applause.

Ricketts Eyeing A Land Swap?

The Little Jackson Hole saga may not be over. 

Ricketts has been active in the real estate market in what appears to be an unrelated spending spree in neighboring Lincoln County. But some wonder if it is unrelated.

Over the course of the 18 months, Ricketts has bought up nearly an entire planned community in the middle of the forest in Star Valley. The largely failed isolated subdivision had sat unsold for a decade until Ricketts’ recent interest.

Dubbed “Renegade” by Christie’s International Real Estate, the 73-acre inholding within the Bridger-Teton National Forest’s Greys River region is marketed as an elite fly-in, fly-out “island of luxury.” 

Renegade is comprised of 19 lots and features its own private airstrip and a 65,000-square-foot lodge boasting a saloon, theater, conference rooms, a full kitchen, workout facilities and a hot tub.

In reality, the property has not been actively marketed in some time after being rebranded Renegade. 

Initially, Lincoln County developer Dan Schwab made a go at commercializing the inholding as the 43-lot Blind Bull Meadows subdivision in 2013 until intense blowback from the Star Valley community stalled his dream. 

Some careful observers say Ricketts may be using his holdings there as a bargaining chip with the Bridger-Teton Forest for a land swap. Ricketts has reportedly been actively trying to buy out landowners along the Upper Hoback River Road between his two ranch properties. 

A land swap with the Forest Service could allow Ricketts to connect his two ranches without using the existing road. 

The Ricketts team had not responded to Cowboy State Daily inquiries to learn more about his long-term plans by the time this story was posted.

Joe and Marlene Ricketts. (Courtesy Photo)

Trickledown Wealth

Bondurant’s bristling at the hustle and bustle to the north is a tenuous line in the sand. How long can a pastoral community like Bondurant hold off development?

The community is too charming, too unspoiled and, most importantly, too close to Jackson Hole to remain that way. 

In northern Sublette County, ranchers are already slowly being replaced by Realtors, cowboys swapped for flash wealth tech investors. 

Pinedale is beginning to see spillover from Jacksonites displaced by the escalating cost of living in Teton County, the wealthiest county in America. 

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Jake Nichols

Features Reporter