Ricketts’ latest ‘guest ranch’ request raises concerns

Cali O'Hare photo Sublette County residents and ranchers look on as Morgan Fischer, the agent for billionaire Joe Ricketts, addresses the county commissioners on Dec. 6 regarding plans for the Jackson Fork Ranch.

*Editor’s note: We chose to run this article about Sublette County commissioners’ Dec. 6 meeting to show an outside perspective of a controversial issue. It is lightly edited for length. The Roundup and Examiner will explore this and other county planning and zoning items in detail as well.

JACKSON – In the windy, unincorporated hunting and ranching enclave of Bondurant, south of Jackson Hole, Richard Pearson is thought to be one of the oldest residents who grew up there.

Pearson doesn’t like what he’s seeing in the town he’s called home all of his 70-plus years. Some 8 miles away from the rustic Elkhorn Bar and Trading Post, the community watering hole, billionaire Joe Ricketts is trying to develop a resort and guest ranch on the banks of the Hoback River.

“These billionaires have some kind of status thing going on where they have to go and buy a big ranch and convert it into exclusive lodges or guest ranches,” Pearson said. “This guy doesn’t need the money. It’s just a hobby for him. It’s a status thing. Why should we have to let ourselves be subject to his whims?”

In December 2021, Sublette County commissioners approved a rezone allowing Ricketts to build an exclusive resort on 56 acres of his Jackson Fork Ranch’s 1,300 or so acres. 

Bondurant residents tied that approval up in a Casper courtroom, where oral arguments were heard Nov. 10. The judge’s decision is pending.

Then, on Tuesday, the Sublette County Board of County Commissioners considered the latest play from the TD Ameritrade founder, whose family owns the Chicago Cubs. He wants commissioners to give him the go-ahead to run a guest ranch across 1,300 acres of his Jackson Fork Ranch – as opposed to the 478 acres where it’s permitted now – while incorporating the 160-or-so-acre Dead Shot Ranch. Ricketts has raised white bison on the 1,300-acre ranch. If he incorporates the Dead Shot, Ricketts would add an 8,000-square-foot eight-bedroom “cabin,” a 6,000-square-foot “dining pavilion” and a new youth bunkhouse to the smaller guest ranch operation. Up to 50 guests could stay on the Dead Shot at a time.

But Ricketts’ team withdrew his application for the guest ranch Tuesday, Dec. 6, after finger pointing and hand wringing – though they regretted that withdrawal after learning of a possible “freeze” on large-scale development applications. Public comment wasn’t taken after the application was withdrawn.

Morgan Fischer, the billionaire’s agent, told the News&Guide after the meeting that expanding the ranch would help conserve the area by preventing subdivision near the Hoback River’s headwaters. But Ricketts’ problem is that residents of the sprawling and unincorporated Western Wyoming town don’t buy it. They see Ricketts’ moves as the inevitable encroachment of Jackson Hole’s resorts and wealthy residents into their quieter way of life. After Fischer presented Sublette County commissioners with a last-minute addition to Ricketts’ original application — specifics not formally reviewed by the Sublette County Planning and Zoning Board — even some commissioners seemed to think he was ramming the proposal down their throats.

When Fischer told commissioners that running a ranch across two geographically isolated chunks of land was a “common practice in Wyoming,” Commissioner Doug Vickrey bristled. He said he felt Ricketts was trying to dodge the Planning and Zoning Board, which recommended the elected commissioners deny the permit. And he lamented neighbors’ almost unanimous frustration.

“I’ve been here a long time, Mr. Fischer, and I can understand exactly what neighbors and neighborhoods are all about,” Vickrey said. “Neighbors are dependent upon one another. That’s the way it is here in the West.

“We make our decisions based on our word and a handshake. And that’s the law of the West. In this case, I still feel like Jackson Fork Ranch is circumventing the system we are accustomed to.”

Fischer told the News&Guide that, with oil and gas revenue declining, Ricketts sees tourism as a way to bolster Wyoming’s budget. He said during the meeting that the Jackson Fork Ranch has spent over $1.6 million this year in Sublette County. He declined to name who the ranch had done business with.

“Over time, tourism can help replace some of the money lost from oil and gas,” Fischer said, adding that Ricketts’ intent is not to “destroy the community.”

Instead, Fischer said Ricketts wants to “preserve ranching as a way of life.” When Ricketts bought the Jackson Fork Ranch, Fischer said he did so to keep it from being subdivided. 

“Joe wants to see an open valley floor,” Fischer said. “We believe that tourism is not only a way to help offset revenues lost to oil and gas but also to show the public at large — not only people from this county in the state, but at large — how conservation and tourism can be done collectively and properly.”

Ricketts once made an 11th hour donation to clinch an $8.75-million buyout of 58,000 acres of natural gas leases to prevent drilling in the Hoback Basin. But Bondurant residents now feel Ricketts’ conservation ethic has gone astray and don’t want to see their town undergo resort-driven development.

“There’s a lot of pressure coming from Jackson Hole,” said Bondurant resident Dan Bailey, adding that Sublette County passed a resolution in 1993 to protect Hoback Basin from overdevelopment.

“What we’re seeing by Ricketts is a constant pressure in purchasing properties, development proposals to try to commercialize the Upper Hoback for financial benefit,” Bailey said.

He said that when applications change like this one permit did, it is hard to understand what exactly is Ricketts’ “whole game.” Bailey also worried that Ricketts’ successful push for a 2021 rezone may encourage other ranchers and landowners to do the same, upsetting protections enshrined in the area’s zoning and comprehensive plans.

“It’s hard to compromise with somebody such as Ricketts because once he begins to develop, he has such a great deal of wealth that he can accelerate the development process and encourage other ranchers to sell out for development,” Bailey said.

Elected officials were similarly wary of Ricketts’ latest proposal Tuesday.

Even commissioners like Joel Bousman, who said he supported the ranch’s proposal when he first heard it, said they couldn’t support the last-minute way it was pitched to them.

“I felt very good about it,” Bousman said. “But after this came to (us) four or five days ago, I’m thinking it’s not fair to anybody, to the citizens of the county, for us to make a decision based on this updated application without giving our (planning and zoning) staff time to review it.”

Among other things, Fischer proposed moving most of its operation on the Dead Shot farther south, berm and plant trees along the northern property line to screen it from neighbors and abide by Wyoming Game and Fish recommendations. Fischer and Ricketts’ team tweaked the application after discussing them with the Planning and Zoning Board, but presented it to the county commission only days before the meeting. The public didn’t see the changes until Tuesday.

After the hubbub Tuesday, Fischer and attorneys Ed Woods of Pinedale and John Graham of Jackson conferred. Fischer “respectfully” withdrew the application to submit a new one for the Planning and Zoning Board and public to review.

“This is frustrating because it probably will not change the ultimate outcome,” Fischer said.

In some ways, Bousman agreed.

“I would predict that it isn’t going to make any difference to the Planning and Zoning Board,” Bousman said. “They’re probably going to vote it down anyway because they don’t want to see these kinds of things in the Bondurant community whether they’re good, bad, provide jobs, don’t matter.”

The Planning and Zoning Board voted against both of Ricketts’ proposals.

Bousman led the charge in supporting the rezone. Board Chair Chris Lacinak pushed back after the meeting, arguing that the planning board’s decisions were in line with the Sublette County Comprehensive Plan. He feels the plan’s not ambiguous but that commissioners like Bousman treat it like it is.

“They don’t really defend their position,” Lacinak said. “And so they’re saying it’s ambiguous.”

After the application was withdrawn, Dennis Fornstrom, the county’s head planner, suggested a “freeze” on reviewing “all matters that take a public hearing,” including Ricketts’ new proposal. Fornstrom said his staff and board time to review and revise the county’s new land development regulations before considering any new permits because of staffing capacity.

After Fornstrom proposed the “freeze,” Fischer said he would not have withdrawn the application had he known of it. Bousman said the freeze wasn’t about sidelining the Jackson Fork Ranch’s proposal.

But Fischer said pending updates to Sublette County code had a lot of language directed at guest ranches.

“I’m not accusing anyone of targeting the giant Jackson Fork Ranch,” he said, “although it does appear that perhaps they’re doing this with an earmark.”

After discussion, Fornstrom withdrew his proposal of the “freeze.”

But planning commission members objected to how close the county commission came to approving one while exempting the Jackson Fork Ranch’s soon-to-be resubmitted application.

“It is getting preferential treatment if it’s allowed back in before and after we’re doing the freeze,” Planning and Zoning Board member Maike Tan said. “This has often gotten preferential treatment.”

For Pearson, the longtime Bondurant resident, the concern isn’t so much about the process. He was more upset about the optics of billionaires doing what they want with his town.

“They’re just using it for a rich playground,” he said. “That’s what it amounts to.”