This story comes through a content-sharing partnership with Wyoming Public Radio.
Sublette County commissioners recently voted against expanding the acreage for a planned luxury resort in Bondurant, a largely untouched area in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The decision comes after years of controversy.
In 2021, multi-billionaire and TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts was granted a zoning change so he could build a commercial resort on his working buffalo ranch called the Jackson Fork Ranch. The property neighbors several other homes, a state elk feedground and the Bridger Teton National Forest. The current plan includes a 15- to 20-room main hotel and eight cabins of unspecified size. A resort of this magnitude does not yet exist in Bondurant, a small ranching town that Ricketts has dubbed ‘Little Jackson Hole.’
But recently, Ricketts was proposing to expand his resort plans even more from 478 acres to 1,300 acres to accommodate management and more guests. The additional acreage would have included more of the Jackson Fork Ranch, as well as another parcel of land Ricketts owns on the same Upper Hoback Road, called the Dead Shot Ranch. But the proposal failed in a 3-2 vote Tuesday, March 9.
“So, 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,” Commissioner Doug Vickery said to a room of applause.
Over the years, many residents spoke out against all of the plans – citing unwanted tourism and concern that this zoning change could set a precedent for changing an agricultural and residential area into a commercial resort. Some even fought Ricketts’ approved 2021 zoning change in court, however, the approval was upheld.
“Now I say as a whole, obviously the Bondurant folks were more upset than the rest,” Vickery said to WPR in 2021. “But I had responses from every corner of Sublette county that said, ’Please don’t pass it.’”
Another point of concern for residents is the health of the environment and wildlife. A major mule deer and pronghorn migration corridor protected by Governor Mark Gordon in 2020 crosses through Ricketts’ property, although the state protection does not apply to private lands. Additionally, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has cited the area as critical moose and elk winter-range.
“We’re concerned about the entire health of the Upper Hoback Valley, as well as Sublette in general. We feel this opens the gates for exploitation,” Bondurant resident Dan Bailey said in the Tuesday commissioner meeting.
Notably, Ricketts has been at the helm of some significant conservation in the area. In 2012, he financially helped with a buyout of oil and gas leases in the Wyoming Range – the range at the base of his proposed resort – that prevented development and kept wildlife habitat intact. Most recently, Ricketts donated an unspecified amount of money to the University of Wyoming (UW) with the focus on further understanding and conserving the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
“Despite its incredible variety and importance, our knowledge of biodiversity in Wyoming and the greater Yellowstone ecosystem is incomplete,” Ricketts said in a UW press release. “Successful long-term conservation requires a systematic baseline of scientific study. I am pleased that Jackson Fork Ranch will collaborate with the exceptional scientists at the University of Wyoming on this important project to inform conservation strategies for generations to come.”
However, some say not developing the area into a luxury resort would be the ultimate conservation strategy.
“What is sustainable is wide-open spaces,” Muley Fanatic Foundation founder Josh Coursey said to commissioners at a Dec. 2021 meeting where they initially approved Ricketts zoning changes.
But Ricketts’ team has previously implied that if zoning changes were not made to allow for the luxury resort, the multi-billionaire would consider subdividing in order to afford the ranch. As the property is currently zoned, Ricketts could divide the 1,300 acre ranch into 35-acre parcels, which would allow for about 35 homes to be constructed.
“The only way we’re going to preserve it is with tourist dollars,” Ricketts said about his resort plans. “I don’t know of another way that I can generate enough income to take care of it.”
Now, as things stand with the recent Tuesday vote by commissioners, Ricketts will not be allowed to expand the resort plans onto an additional 822 acres. But Ricketts will be able to move forward with the original plan, which allows him to build facilities to accommodate 150 guests – more than the population of Bondurant itself.
This likely is not the end of the Ricketts saga. Wyofile recently reported that he is considering a land swap with the U.S. Forest Service with his property in the Greys River for forest service land in the Upper Hoback that would help connect the two ranches in Bondurant – Jackson Fork and Dead Shot.
Disclaimer: Reporter Caitlin Tan’s mom, Maike Tan, serves on Sublette County’s Planning and Zoning Board