PINEDALE—Sublette County Commissioner Doug Vickrey pulled no punches as he motioned to tell Joe Ricketts no to a restaurant, gymnasium, bunkhouse and cabin village at the end of the quiet, rural forest road. 

The billionaire TD Ameritrade founder’s proposal was “detrimental to the public health, safety [and] welfare,” Vickrey charged. Moreover, he said, the plans to makeover the riverbank at the head of the Upper Hoback River valley would materially harm Ricketts’ neighbors.

Vickrey’s objection was predictable. He’d been opposed — though in the commission’s minority — in a series of decisions to OK major development plans that clashed with wildlife and the ethos of the quaint western Wyoming communities that dot Sublette County. Commissioner Dave Stephens and the Sublette County Planning and Zoning board have also been reliably opposed to the controversial construction proposals, but they and Vickrey have been overruled by three commissioners who’ve consistently supported giving developers what they want. 

Sublette County commissioners Doug Vickrey, left, and Tom Noble, in March 2023. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Last week, however, commissioner Sam White flipped and, without explanation, joined Vickrey and Stephens in opposition. 

“Sorry, guys,” White told Ricketts’ agents who’d pushed their plans through nearly five hours of deliberations. “Your application is denied at this time.” 

A Sublette County Library conference room full of Bondurant residents applauded. 

White did not return a call from WyoFile seeking comment.

The first round of claps and cheers came several hours earlier, when Vickrey read from the “code of the West” which was adopted as the Wyoming State Code in 2010. 

“‘Remember that some things are not for sale,’” Vickrey said, reading the code. “Folks, I’m going to tell you right now, I am one of those things. I am not for sale. 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.” 

A shifting cultural landscape

Last week’s setback only hinders one facet of Ricketts’ multipronged development plans for the upper reaches of the Hoback River, where he has already secured multiple parcels and entitlements to build. Major changes are on the horizon for Bondurant, a picturesque rural enclave of 100 residents whose homes and summer dwellings sprawl out in the high desert between the Gros Ventre and Wyoming mountain ranges. 

Bison chow down on hay at Joe Ricketts’ Jackson Fork Ranch in March 2023. High Plains Bison, which distributes to Costco, is among the billionaire’s investments. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

The octogenarian billionaire who owns two ranches — the Jackson Fork and the Dead Shot — and several other lots, secured permission to build a controversial 64-room exclusive resort

An earlier iteration of that resort, now planned for 56 acres on his Jackson Fork Ranch, was previously denied in 2020. The Ricketts team altered plans and came back 18 months later, winning over Sublette County commissioners 3-2. Ricketts’ Bondurant neighbors sued, and lost, according to the Sublette Examiner.

The conditional use permit application denied last week would have dovetailed with the coming resort, by folding another Ricketts holding — the 159-acre Dead Shot guest ranch — into the larger 1,300-acre Jackson Fork Ranch. The Dead Shot is already permitted for a small guest ranch — just five short-term residences used by no more than 15 guests. Ricketts sought to build that operation out with a 8,000-square-foot restaurant for guests, bunkhouse, gymnasium, staff quarters and 10 guest cabins of unspecified sizes. The guest cap would have jumped to 65 under the proposal. 

Joe Ricketts’ now-denied plans to renovate the Dead Shot Ranch are outlined in this site map provided by Sublette County. (Courtesy)

The Sublette County Planning and Zoning Board, an advisory body that county commissioners have repeatedly disregarded, recommended support for the permit revision on a 3-2 vote with stipulations. The board’s aim, evidently, was to influence the outcome, rather than sit on the sideline advising straight denial. They attached 19 conditions to the yes recommendation, including a requirement that Ricketts retain a “dark sky consultant” to preserve Bondurant’s starry skies, and a cap of 215 guests recreating on the entire Jackson Fork and Dead Shot Ranch complex at any one time. 

Much of Sublette County commissioners’ deliberations revolved around the guest numbers, and the discussions dragged on for hours. Questions arose about the definition of recreation, whether visitors on one property influenced guest caps on the other, who’d be allowed in the guest restaurant and how many people could be on the properties during special events. 

Upper Hoback River Road resident Lisi Krall addresses Sublette County commissioners in March 2023. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Bondurant residents blasted the convoluted discussion when given the chance to say their part. Lisi Krall, a seasonal Upper Hoback River Road resident, took issue with how Ricketts’ plans have been rolled out piecemeal and never considered as a whole. 

“The purpose of the [conditional use permit] on the Dead Shot and the whole parcel is not to put in a modest little guest ranch,” Krall said. “It’s to fit in with the entirety of an elaborate business plan … It’s a large-scale, exclusive resort along Upper Hoback River Road, that’s what’s happening here. As commissioners, you’re charged with assessing the damage to somebody like me.” 

Others echoed her complaint, including some unlikely commenters.  

Joy Ufford, a reporter at the Pinedale Roundup who’s written about the Ricketts saga, took the lectern and explained she got special permission from her editor to share her feelings.

“I said if I don’t say something I’m never going to forgive myself,” Ufford said. “I’m going to be sick, sick, sick if Bondurant is sacrificed as a stepping stone to Jackson.” 

The next Jackson?

Ricketts refers to the Bondurant area as Little Jackson Hole, a moniker that’s rooted in history according to research he commissioned

Teton County, infamously, is fast-transitioning into an outdoor playground for the wealthiest Americans, oftentimes at the expense of longtime residents and community culture. Graphic renderings of Ricketts’ forthcoming resort show a Jackson Hole brand of glitz. Ricketts’ staff has likened the vision for the Jackson Fork Ranch to the Brush Creek Ranch, a Saratoga-area resort that uses terms like “unbridled luxury” to describe itself

Joe Ricketts agent Morgan Fischer addresses Sublette County commissioners in March 2023. Sublette County planner Dennis Fornstrom is on his left. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

It’s tough to say how Sublette County commissioners’ denial of the Dead Shot Ranch proposal will influence Ricketts’ larger plans for the Upper Hoback. 

The denial of Ricketts’ guest ranch application means he must wait one year before resubmitting any similar development proposal, according to Sublette County Planner Dennis Fornstrom. 

Ricketts’ agent and project front man Morgan Fischer declined WyoFile’s interview request. A public relations agent requested written questions about where the denial leaves Ricketts’ plans, instead. They too went unanswered. 

Many suspect Ricketts has undisclosed larger plans for his Bondurant properties. He’s recently acquired most of a controversial national forest inholding, his agents confirmed, potentially as a bargaining chip for a land swap with the Bridger-Teton National Forest to increase his Upper Hoback River holdings. A cluster of private residences and a reach of national forest separate Ricketts’ Jackson Fork and Dead Shot properties. 

Vickrey pressed Fischer for some clarity on the long-range plan ahead of the commissioners’ no vote.

“Knowing the ability of Mr. Ricketts to get his way, my guess is that at some point — whether it’s in the very near future or the next couple years — he is going to make a swap that will give him more private property,” Vickrey said. “What is the endgame? That’s the important thing for me to know.” 

Joe Ricketts acquired the 160-acre Dead Shot Ranch, pictured from Upper Hoback River Road, with the intention of building out the property and folding it into his larger Jackson Fork Ranch. Burned trees from the 2018 Roosevelt Fire are in the background. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

“Joe’s business plan is to open up his resort in conjunction with his guest ranch,” Fischer said. “That’s the end game. That’s where it ends.”

But Fischer also grouped “Daniel housing” into the current plan. He didn’t go into details, but the Sublette Examiner has reported that Ricketts has acquired nearly 60 acres of land near the tiny hamlet of Daniel Junction. 

Fischer also conceded potential expansion of the Jackson Fork Ranch on the horizon. If an expansion happens, he said, it would be a “minimum of four or five years from now.” 

Construction and opening the approved resort and just-denied guest ranch will take “three or four years,” Fischer said. They would only return to the commission to ask for more after that if all goes well and the Bondurant community’s worries prove unfounded.   

“Perhaps at that time, we might ask the board for future use,” Fischer said.

Mike Koshmrl reports on Wyoming's wildlife and natural resources. Prior to joining WyoFile, he spent nearly a decade covering the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s wild places and creatures for the Jackson...

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  1. Great Article and I am sooo impressed with Wyoming Subletter County commissioners and the PEOPLE of wyoming for working to maintain the beauty and culture of Western Wyoming. For people who love Jackson Hole Teton area– GO spend your millions to live and develop that area. That would be a win win for everyone.

  2. He had 80 years to commercialize the wild places. Hope he can be held off just a bit longer. Some things should NOT be for sale!

  3. “Makeover”? More like massacre or mangling.
    “Little Jackson Hole”? Hopefully NEVER, in terms of glitz, glamour and any more billionaires, of this sort anyway.
    Maybe the Turners or the Meads, or Harrison Ford – or some other well to do WY conservationists with values other than accumulation of wealth – will take it off his hands.

  4. If you’ve ever played “whack-a-mole”, you’d understand the conundrum faced by the Sublette Planning & Zoning members, County Commissioners and residents.

    Wanting desperately to establish a commercial development, the proponent would NOT be tied down to any concrete plans. Every meeting I attended turned into a series of sly card tricks, as the proponent changed building layouts, number of structures, staffing numbers, size of land disturbance, etc. – – in real time. You name it, if the representative thought a different offer would help their case, they’d change on the fly.
    Guess that works in major metropolitan areas, but Sublette residents wanted a definite, solid plan that could be reviewed and analyzed so they could offer germane comments on a known quantity. Instead, different proposals and variations popped up, like a little mole, at every presentation. To add confusion, even the maps provided by the proponents varied from their written proposal.
    So here’s my advice to anyone who wants to turn a serious public hearing into a carnival side show: If you don’t know what you want, don’t submit an application. Don’t waste people’s time. Don’t be disrespectful to the good folks who live in Bondurant and other places in Sublette, as well as our volunteer P&Z members, and Board of Commissioners. Take your whack game elsewhere.

    1. Thank you for a great commentary about what has gone on with the Jackson Fork Ranch proposals….a veritable “slight of hand” sideshow by “non-local” people who see making a buck is worth any tricks they can pull! Many thanks to our commissioners Vickery, White and Stephens for helping save our beautiful Upper Hoback/Bondurant area.

    2. Yes, the whole process was just a sideshow of so many “sleight of hand” moves by the proponents of the Jackson Fork Ranch development proposal…..a parade of distortions, quick-changes, outright untruths. Thanks to our courageous commissioners Vickery, Stephens and White for their foresight in helping to save our beautiful Upper Hoback/Bondurant area!!!

  5. I want to shake Commissioner Vickery’s hand. Finally a public official not for sale! Is anyone looking at Commissioners who were for sale? Worth a look. And, is it true that Dennis Fornstrom “hangs out” often with Ricketts’ son at the Jackson Fork Ranch? Who does he really work for? Cudos to the P&Z Board for hanging in there in the face of despicable backdoor dealing (both inside and outside). Rickets played the hero in donating money to buy out the Noble Basin gas drilling plan. Now we see it was part of his selfish resort business plan. Can’t have a gas field bordering a late night champagne BBQ!! And now a $1million donation to the hospital project? Where will he want the Hoback urgent care facility located in return?
    Wake up Sublette County. This is just the beginning. Big money and it’s power needs to be stopped right here, right now.

    1. Great comment…..let’s be vigilant..let’s find out more about what was promised to whom!!!

  6. Congrats to Vickrey on his statement “Code of the West” unlike many political specimens as in Jackson, applauds 👏 for taking a stand as a real American of the West.

  7. Congratulations Sublette County!!!
    A few words about the process. Generally speaking, a County needs to inform the applicant of a development why it was denied. This is usually done by the County Planner in a written letter itemizing the provisions in the Sublette County Land Use Plan which the application failed to satisfy. For a high profile case like this, the letter should be reviewed by the County Attorney to verify accuracy and to make sure the letter quotes written and oral comments received from the public during the public hearings and to ensure that the recommendations of the County Planner and Land Use Planning Commission are included in the letter. This is very important since Counties cannot make arbitrary and capricious decisions – there must be reason and logic documented in case the matter goes to District Court where the judge will review the documentation to determine if it followed the Land Use Plan and to determine whether or not the decision was arbitrary and capricious. If Sublette County did this by the books the decision will probably stand. Obviously, this matter is a public process and the court will also review the process to ensure it was discussed in an open public environment.

    Denying an applicant a portion of their property rights is a serious matter in Wyoming. However, in this matter, the applicant was not denied ALL of his property rights but only a small portion. He still owns the property and can continue its agricultural and existing residential uses. The applicant probably would have been better off by entering into a conservation agreement wherein he could have received a very large tax write off – this option is still available to the applicant I believe.

  8. I was pleased to see the outcome. This development would have changed the entire county, not to mention the impacts that the proposed number of people would have had on the entire Hoback River Basin. I think many in Sublette County are happy with the way it is currently.

  9. As a Bondurant resident, I can affirm that the development proposed by the Joe Ricketts and Jackson Fork Ranch will be detrimental to the rural and tranquil lifestyle of our little community. Mr Ricketts has imported a staff of “non-locals” to carry out his scheme …to own the whole Upper Hoback, change the 120+ year old name of Bondurant to Little Jackson Hole (trying to capitalize on the proximity to Jackson), re-engineer the headwaters of the Hoback River to accommodate his “world famous trout fishing” luxury resort and its “upper class” guests, and effectively control access and enjoyment of one of the most beautiful areas in Wyoming. The most obvious thing to me about this whole plan is the claim by Ricketts that he LIVES in Wyoming…NOT TRUE in real life….He lives in Omaha, Nebraska, but uses WYOMING as a residence to AVOID PAYING STATE INCOME TAX! We never see him or his wife here and he is only represented here in Wyoming by his minions!

    1. Three key words: State. Income. Tax. Wyomingites who are sick of being pushed around by big money interlopers have a very real and very effective solution available. We just need to vote in commissioners and legislators that care more about the future of Wyoming than their billionaire cronies.

  10. Thanks for deniying what would be an absolute MESS. Who does this guy think he is? He’s not even a Wyoingite!!!

  11. Where is the concern about disrupting the mule deer migration? Wildlife brings in a tremendous amount of tourist. We need to consider what it takes to keep the Wildlife healthy and with us!

  12. Thank you for following this story: kudos to those commissioners who are saying “no” and listening to their residents. It is very difficult to stop major development once it’s allowed in an area. Here in Palm Beach County, Florida where I reside most of the year, we have seen a major influx of high-end developments and at the same time long-time residents having to leave because their quality of life is adversely affected. While there are no easy answers, this transparent journalism by writers like Mr. Mike Koshmrl of WyoFile helps to inform all the parties involved to make sure they exercise their free speech to equip the elected officials to make the best decision when posed with requests like Mr. Joe Ricketts.