Guest column: Conservation?

By Lisi Krall, Bondurant
Posted 5/18/23

While we may not all agree on what conservation is, or the best way to promote it, we have a pretty good idea of what it is not. This is what it is not: It is not an expansive and exclusive ecotourist resort along the Upper Hoback River.

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Guest column: Conservation?


While we may not all agree on what conservation is, or the best way to promote it, we have a pretty good idea of what it is not. This is what it is not: It is not an expansive and exclusive ecotourist resort along the Upper Hoback River. In the name of conservation, Mr. Ricketts is taking the fragile Upper Hoback River and overlaying it with a high-end resort that will offer among other things, a wellness center with a doctor, a European spa, exercise facilities, a beauty shop. It would offer high-end dining and luxurious living all in the name of conservation. It will have six sixplexes, two fourplexes and a 20-room hotel.
Understand that this is an expansion of his original proposal. This is about business and not conservation. If Mr. Ricketts were interested in real conservation as opposed to an ecotourism business he would put his entire holding along the Upper Hoback River into a conservation easement. It’s actually pretty simple, but he was very clear when asked about doing that. His response: “I don’t want to.”
Among other things, the Homestead resort will sit on the path of ancient migration paths of deer and antelope, sage-grouse habitat, a viable ranching community and along a delicate fly-fishing river that cannot possibly accommodate his guests should they all want to fish. But fear not, Mr. Ricketts is contracting with the University of Wyoming to do studies of the flora and fauna of the area, to ascertain impact. It seems a bit like taking the cart before the horse, is it not? Wouldn’t a clear idea of the fragility of the area be called for before the resort goes in? 
Mr. Ricketts explained his philanthropy, his intentions in Sublette County and his rather delusional version of conservation in a meeting sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce on May 2. The meeting was packed with Mr. Ricketts supporters — most of who have not attended the many meetings deliberating his proposals for development of his property on the Upper Hoback River. But the people of Bondurant were at those meetings because they understood the impact of what he was proposing on their way of life and the fragility of the Upper Hoback River ecosystem.
Many Sublette County residents are grateful to Mr. Ricketts for his philanthropy and I suspect that’s why they were there to applaud him. But let me remind the citizens of Sublette County, Bondurant is part of Sublette County and it should not be considered a sacrifice zone for the rest of the county. More importantly, the people of Sublette County should not be swayed by a spurious conservation argument. Again, this is about business, it is not about conservation and to conflate the two is gaslighting.

But, of course, none of this could be discussed in the meeting held on May 2 because the meeting was set up to avoid this kind of discussion. Mr. Ricketts gave his rags-to-Ricketts story, his spurious conservation rationale and then questions had to be submitted in writing and Mr. Ricketts chose which to answer and how to interpret them. It was a carefully orchestrated event to promote Mr. Ricketts.
Mr. Ricketts’ conservation argument goes like this: He tells us we are about to see a tenfold increase in tourism over the next 10 years and therefore it is imperative to teach people about conservation. There was no data to back up this number. We know the economic system won’t grow tenfold over the next 10 years, and we know population won’t grow tenfold over the next 10 years because in order for either of these to happen, we would have to have an astronomical annual growth rate. Just to give you some way to think about it — if the economy (or population) were to increase tenfold over the next 10 years, I think we would be talking about growth rates of about 25 percent per year. The present growth rate of the U.S. population is about one-half of 1 percent per year and the economic growth rate usually averages about 4 percent per year on a good year.
I’m not sure where Mr. Ricketts gets his numbers or his extrapolation but they belie mathematical calculation. It is true that when the pandemic shut down international travel, people started traveling more domestically — park visits increased as did visitors to the Wind Rivers but there is no reason to believe this trend will continue and produce a tenfold increase in the next decade. Mr. Ricketts made the argument that people want to travel more domestically because the world is becoming increasingly more violent. If violence determined what people did, I suspect most of the people in the U.S. would simply stay home because the last time I checked violence seems a part of daily life here.
Mr. Ricketts is arguing that we have to engage people with conservation because without conservation many species will simply not survive. In Ricketts words, “If we leave the Yellowstone Ecosystem alone it will go away.”  Now there’s some convoluted thinking.
While it is true that humans need to engage in more conservation it is important to understand that the reason for this is that the impact of humans on the earth is presently so great it threatens the survival of many species and intact ecosystems. It’s called the 6th mass extinction and it is being caused by human impact and expansion. Even a 4-percent growth rate is a problem for the remaining intact ecosystems and species. At a 4-percent rate of growth, the economy (or the population) will double in less than 18 years. This is basic math.
This is the contradiction someone like Mr. Ricketts should be grappling with as he assesses his strategies for conservation and building his Homestead resort. I can’t imagine that resort won’t increase the human impact on the Upper Hoback and the earth.
Mr. Ricketts also argued that Homestead would bring needed jobs and economic development to Sublette County so this is the benefit to Sublette County. Ecotourism will generate economic bliss for the county. According to Ricketts, the 134 jobs generated through Homestead will provide $6.6 million worth of wages (and their multiplying effect). That’s about $50,000 per year in wages for each employee but since all employees are not created equal I imagine some will get substantially more and most will get less. I’m not sure if that wage will include benefits like health care. Many of the employees will be housed in the “Daniel Projects” that Mr. Ricketts is building for the people that will be working for him — and likely working damn hard. Most of those employees will find out that working hard for Mr. Ricketts doesn’t necessarily mean they will be economically successful. They will learn that the wages they earn in that long commute to the Upper Hoback to change the sheets of the wealthy and feed them so they can learn about conservation will not put their kids through college, pay the mortgage costs of a house in Sublette County nor provide needed health care. How all of this complexity filters into an economic boom for the county remains unclear to me.
I’m not suggesting that Mr. Ricketts has no conservation ethic. I am merely suggesting that what he intends on the Upper Hoback has little to do with conservation. I ask that in the future he just call what he’s doing what it is, business and empire building. At least that would be honest and it would give some of us the dignity of our intelligence. And any time Mr. Ricketts wants to talk about the 6th mass extinction, the decline of ecosystem viability, the state of the natural world and the human impact on it and the need for real conservation, I am available for that conversation.