PINEDALE—Joe Ricketts painted a picture of an environmentally benign eutopia, a place where high-dollar guests from places like Los Angeles could take their golf carts down to view animals traveling along the world’s longest-known mule deer migration route.

“We will open up corridors across my ranch during the migration season so that the ungulates can go through,” Ricketts told a crowd Tuesday at the Sublette County Library. “Now remember, I told you, we have to get tourists to pay for this stuff in order for it to be successful.” 

The TD Ameritrade founder’s prognostication was that guests would pay to sit in blinds or something similar to view and learn about the easily disturbed ungulates, which follow migration paths that cross several other recently OK’d private land developments in the area. In doing so, guests may be inspired to help conserve the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, he suggested.

“We’d increase their enthusiasm,” Ricketts said of the deer-watching tourists. “They get to participate.” 

The Jackson Fork Ranch on the upper Hoback River is typical of the agricultural landscape in the Bondurant basin. A luxury resort coming to the property is a form of conservation, landowner Joe Ricketts has argued. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

The concept that the Yellowstone region is under siege by a tidal wave of visitors whose wallets could be harnessed in the interest of environmental conservation was the main thrust of an hour-long forum Ricketts hosted. The event was billed as a chance to ask the billionaire questions about his vision for his Bondurant properties. The format, however, was such that attendees couldn’t speak — instead, they could submit questions in writing that Ricketts thumbed through and interpreted. 

The bulk of the forum was devoted to the wealthy businessman, whose family owns the Chicago Cubs, telling his story. He discussed research and conservation efforts he’s funded about loons, trumpeter swans and other species, then pivoted to explaining why he refers to his Jackson Fork Ranch as being located in “Little Jackson Hole” — a moniker he said fur traders used for the tiny community of Bondurant, where his ranch is located. 

“I thought it was charming because I was going to advertise for anglers,” Ricketts said of the nickname. “If I advertise as Bondurant, well nobody in Los Angeles and New York knows where it is. But if I advertise Little Jackson Hole, every angler knows where it is. Northwest Wyoming is a mecca for fishing trout.” 

‘Little Jackson Hole’

A hub for tourists Bondurant is not — at least not yet. It’s a big part of why Ricketts’ plans for his approved resort and recently denied guest ranch along Upper Hoback River Road have proven so divisive. The picturesque, unincorporated Sublette County community of about 100 people has a post office, elementary school, some guest ranches and a bar and restaurant, but that’s about it as far as commercial and public facilities go. The surrounding landscape, however, is all public: It’s the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Many see Ricketts’ planned luxurious resort, an all-inclusive destination that would be staffed by 134 employees, as wholly incongruent. 

The funky old-time Elkhorn Bar and gas station, seen in a 2014 iteration, stands as a Bondurant landmark. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Bondurant residents, who’ve flocked to Sublette County meetings for years to weigh in, have almost uniformly contested Ricketts’ plans. The plans have struggled to gain traction with decision-making county commissioners, and they’ve stumbled along the way. His resort was denied on the first attempt at approval. 

At the Sublette County Library, however, there was a conspicuous showing of Ricketts supporters. At times audience members asked for permission to give applause and encouraged him to buy White Pine Ski Area.

“The thing I want to know is, ‘Where’s the free turkey?’” asked seasonal Bondurant resident Dan Bailey, who was not among the supporters. “How did he get that many people to show up at a meeting like that?” 

The pro-Ricketts contingent was “odd,” he told WyoFile: “We’ve gone at this for three and a half years now, and we’ve never got any of these people showing up to any of the meetings where they’re going to make a decision.” 

Northwest Wyoming residents listen into a forum about Joe Ricketts’ plans for his Bondurant ranch during a May 2023 event at the Sublette County Library. (Joy Ufford/Pinedale Roundup)

Many of the written notes Ricketts received offered the billionaire not questions, but thank yous, he told the crowd. Ricketts recently donated $1 million to help build a Sublette County hospital. A decade ago he made another $1-million gift to help prevent a gas field that would have dotted the mountainsides surrounding his Jackson Fork Ranch. Ricketts’ vast fortune, estimated at $2.9 billion but which fluctuates with the market, enables his philanthropy. 

“I’m proud to be a billionaire,” Ricketts said at the library. “I love the free enterprise system … And I’ve got to tell you that I give tens of millions of dollars away every year.” 

The meeting was initiated by Ricketts, though the Sublette County Chamber of Commerce promoted it. The chamber hasn’t taken a position on the businessman’s Bondurant plans and only helped disseminate the forum by posting about it on its Facebook page, chamber board chair Peter Scherbel said. 

“We didn’t make calls or special visits to anybody,” Scherbel said. “As opposed to having inaccurate information, you got it all from the horse’s mouth and now you can make an educated decision.” 

Change coming

Ricketts informed the crowd of some new developments with his resort. For one, it’s happening soon. 

“Construction will be starting this fall,” Ricketts said. “We’ve got plans to really start breaking ground here before too long.” 

Sublette County Sheriff K.C. Lehr and an employee of the Jackson Fork Ranch listen to Joe Ricketts address Sublette County residents in May 2023. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Whether the resort would proceed anytime soon was an open question after officials in March denied a conditional use permit application for a luxury guest ranch that included a 8,000-square-foot restaurant. The proposal would have folded Ricketts’ two main Upper Hoback River Road holdings — the 159-acre Dead Shot guest ranch and 1,300-acre Jackson Fork Ranch — into one. Although the guest ranch is on hold for now — or will not happen at all — the resort is a go.

Ricketts did not dwell on the Dead Shot Ranch setback.

“I’m going to use it for family and friends every once in a while, but I don’t have any plans,” he said. “So you don’t have to ask me any questions about the Dead Shot.” 

Ricketts was also brief in disclosing his intentions for the Renegade subdivision, a remote inholding up the nearby Greys River. He reportedly bought the controversial development as a bargaining chip, with the hope of executing a land swap with the U.S. Forest Service to increase his Upper Hoback River acreage. 

“I can build it into a really nice resort, I can possibly trade it to the Forest Service, I can sell it to somebody else at a higher price because I think it will increase in value,” Ricketts said. “Do I have any plans for it? No.” 

A view of the Renegade subdivision’s runway from the Wyoming Range in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. (Morgan Heim)

Plans for the Bondurant resort, dubbed the “Homestead,” are more concrete. Ricketts revealed he will be building a private road parallelling Upper Hoback River Road, explaining he was doing so out of respect for neighbors anxious about traffic. He listed other planned amenities of the “upscale” property: The Homestead will have a “wellness center” with a doctor on duty,  beauty shop, exercise facility and a European-style spa.

“It’ll be open to the public,” Ricketts said of the spa, “as well as to our guests in the hotel.” 

Ricketts fretted about threats to the environment and the state of the world before delving into his plans. He cited conflict in Sudan and Somalia as indications that Americans are going to cut down on international travel. He asserted they’re going to come to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem instead, estimating a 1,000% increase in tourism over the next decade. 

A pitch for conservation

Market surveys suggest that people drawn to Homestead will be “interested in conservation,” Ricketts said. 

“They don’t want to come here and tear up the place,” he said. “They want to come here and keep the place. They will pay money to learn about and participate in conservation. So we’re doing that at my ranch — that’s a big part of the attraction of the resort I’m building.” 

The fenceline in the foreground, pictured here in 2020, separates Bridger-Teton National Forest property from a sagebrush-covered bench where TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts is building a luxury resort above Upper Hoback River Road. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Seasonal Bondurant resident Lisi Krall, a professor who teaches environmental economics, is skeptical of Ricketts’ equating a luxury resort to some kind of conservation.  

“The rationale and framing of that, I thought, was somewhat delusional,” Krall told WyoFile the day after the meeting. “It just brings new confusion to the already confusing landscape of conservation, because if that qualifies as conservation then virtually anything qualifies as conservation.” 

Krall was perplexed enough by Ricketts’ rationale that she asked him about it in writing. She inquired about his definition of conservation and how building an upscale resort along Upper Hoback River Road fit into that.

Ricketts summarized his argument in response. More people are coming to the Yellowstone area, like it or not, he said.

“They’re going to help destroy the ecosystem unless we train them to appreciate the ecosystem, to understand it and to buy into it,” Ricketts said. “Not only with their time, effort, energy and the information that we give to them, but with their dollars.”

TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts addresses Sublette County residents in May 2023. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Before addressing Krall’s query, Ricketts read out another conservation-related query. Why, a crowd member wrote to him, didn’t he put his Jackson Fork Ranch into a conservation easement that would protect the land? 

Ricketts answered succinctly.

“I don’t want to,” he said.

The crowd chuckled, then Ricketts drew another submission from the audience. It was actually a thank you, he said.

Correction: This story was updated to say Ricketts’ family owns the Chicago Cubs. —Ed.

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. Throughout all these discussions of zoning changes, development applications I continue to hear how the people of Sublette County don’t want to be like Teton County. Good point you have a great example of Zoning changes to accommodate the developers!!!! STOP As king as your planners and commissioners continue to grant Zone changes you are headed to be Teton County!!!!! Tourism is a good industry, as long as they stay on the road, have something to eat, a place to rest, a little shopping and keep going. T the end of the day Rickets is simply building a shrine for himself and his family, and a Zine change was made to assist his wish. Stop the presidents being set by your government officials, paid by the taxpayers!!!!! Someone that wants to lure visitors to their resort by lying with its name is a scarey individual think what else he is lying to the community about within his application. Rickets is nothing but a BLOW HARD that will go to any extreme to get what he want.

  2. Dear Public:
    I’d like to point out a term that the former Mr. AmeriTrade utilized in his ”
    The term was Mecca: “Origins have been proposed in Phoenician maqaq ‘ruined’ or Arabic mahrab ‘sanctuary.’ ”

    Hmmm, I guess I’ve seen the upper Hoback go from “sanctuary” to “ruined” in 40 years. Yep, had my wedding “reception” at the “… funky old time Elkhorn bar …”; it was still the new place. Can’t even recall the other three potential alternative venues following our ceremony outside St. Hubert’s.
    Of course the trout fishing completely sucks now, but Mr. AmeriTrade can’t take the credit for that … just for the final straw – or in this case, size #14 caddis from Jack Dennis’s shop.

    Yeeeep, knew it was gettin crowded when we couldn’t find a place to park within a half mile 20 years ago when we went to the Bondurant Barbeque … and not enough pit-roasted beef for a full first – never mind a second or third – helping.

    What a way with words – and money – Mr. Ameritrade has. Hope he has fun giving all them eager to learn middle class losers from LA an “edgy-kay-shun” regarding a truly last best place* …

    *sorry, Montana’s claim to that title ended when ” … A River (and Real Estate agent) Ran (Ramshackle and Roughshod) Through It (and To It)”.

  3. Boy, I’ll bet the local animal population would be thrilled silly to have a bunch of people in golf carts watching them. What a joke! I’m pretty sure that once his foot is in the door it won’t be a pretty site! Just sayin’. Look at Jackson! Good example.

  4. This is a very sad time for all the wildlife in the Upper Hoback. Nothing good will come of this.

  5. I am not sure what to make of Mr. Ricketts showing up for a question and answer session in which he moderated the written questions he chose to answer. A fair number of those present at the meeting to “support” Mr. Ricketts were folks who are thrilled about his million dollar gift to the Sublette County Hospital District as I understand the case to be. Regardless, the vast majority of us who live in Sublette County are not drinking the Kool-Aid. Large scale tourism has never improved the lives of a majority of locals anywhere, ever. Sublette County will not be the exception to this well established rule. The tourism sector pays employees next to nothing, however these typically semi-transient employees and their families extensively utilize costly resources the rest of us get the privilege of paying for, including but not limited to medical treatment and education. Tourism can increase property values, which is good and bad. It is good if you already own property-at least until you reach the point you cannot afford the property taxes and are forced to sell and move. It is bad because middle income locals are quickly driven out permanently. Large scale tourism is also bad because it wrecks our small community lifestyle. Thank you again Sublette County Commissioners Dave Stephens and Doug Vickrey for fighting hard from the beginning in an effort to stop this travesty. You represented the wishes of a majority of your constituents even though you were in the minority when the votes were cast ultimately approving development of the Upper Hoback, A.K.A. “Little Jackson Hole.”

  6. So much destruction of sagebrush for wealthy folk to play. Isn’t the BLM doing exactly the same thing for corporations and domesticated animals? When is conservation going to really mean conservation and not just touted by folk wanting to destroy it to make money?

  7. Beware of anyone who will only take “written questions.” This man has no interest in conservation of the environment or wildlife. If he did, he would certainly put his land in a conservation easement. But then, that would prevent him from “developing” his land. The only conservation he is truly interested in is that of his bank account. He brags about the tens of millions of dollars he “gives” away every year. That money is only a drop in the bucket to him, and can be written off as charitable contributions on his income tax. These kinds of people will continue to gaslight anyone who will listen. They are there for only one reason – to make more money. This man has nearly 3 billion dollars. How much is enough? Apparently, it doesn’t matter how much some people have. It will never be enough, and they will do whatever it takes to get more, even if that means destroying the environment and wildlife habitat to get it.

  8. Question: “Where’s the free turkey sandwiches?”
    Answer: Why feed expensive turkey, when the crowd was content with baloney?

    Comment: “I have to have tourists to pay for (my commercial development in a pristine area.)”
    Unspoken: I was willing to spend billions ($1,000,000,000.00+) to buy a sports team located in the United Kingdom…

    It’s interesting that the speaker crowed about the planned industrial size restaurant and bounteous staffing levels, the exact opposite of comments made by his representative who tried to minimize these impacts during public hearings before the Planning and Zoning members and Board of Commissioners. Two speakers, two different stories, so what’s actually true?

    The most telling photo was that of Sheriff Lehr, fully armed, sitting within feet of the podium. Were threats made against the speaker due to his planned invasion of hordes from LA or New York? Or his past racist comments denigrating those of different religious beliefs? I don’t recall law enforcement attending other public events at the Library…

    1. The most telling thing about that photo is that the Mr. AmeriTrade employee’s hands looked like they’re ziptied! Maybe he tried to strangle himself after listening to the speech too many times.

  9. Again, I live most of the year in south Florida where we are currently processing countless proposals by developers.

    Unfortunately, this business can be messy in that there have been reports of some developers offering cash money to help encourage support–but if these claims go without evidence upholding the charge, it happens without recognition.

    My humble advice is that residents who are against development like this continue to communicate with their duly elected leaders.

    God bless.

  10. Often business development and conservation are at odds. I think trying to blend the two conceptually in Bondurant by invoking Yellowstone and Jackson is neither going to garner general public support nor produce a conservation
    Most folks in northern Sublette county and many in Pinedale as well, are dismayed by “what has happened” to Jackson.

    Above all many do not want Sublette county to become like Teton County.

    Wildlife habitat, large tracks of public and private lands will be altered and damaged by any built environment.

    Humans by in large tend to trample the environment.

    Tourists in Yellowstone are a diverse bunch. Reportedly, one tourist wants to know ” where do they put the animals in the winter?” Another cuts across a road with a child on his shoulders to get close to a charging Buffalo. Hmm conservation?

    Long lines of cars, with emissions, clog the Yellowstone roads so visitors can glimpse an elk or a bear. Will the attraction of Pronghorns or muledeer and a European spa in Bondurant produce respect for conservation?

    The business model for Mr. Ricketts is ” build it and they will come” with a little incentive.

    There will likely be another chapter to come no matter how many “participants” show up all of a sudden at a staged public meeting.

    Bondurant citizens will continue to fight for the land and quality of life they treasure.

  11. A nice example of framing: luxury tourist development = wildlife conservation. Next thing you’ll hear is that the Chicago Cubs exist to demonstrate Newtonian physics.

  12. The circus like atmosphere of Wyoming. People just aren’t happy until they ruin every inch of wild lands. The country is run by money and corruption. Meanwhile, our Wyoming politicians act in every way to help the wealthy ruin our state. Remember that secret tax haven for the wealthy? Are any Wyoming citizens getting any gains from it?