Bondurant billionaire eyes land swap to gain upper Hoback

Joy Ufford photo Joe Ricketts attended a 2021 Sublette County commissioners' meeting.

SUBLETTE COUNTY — The bulk of an exclusive, private resort community on the Greys River, surrounded on all sides by the Bridger-Teton National Forest, is now owned by TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, who may look to swap the coveted property for U.S. Forest Service land on the Hoback River. 

Ricketts, whose family fortune exceeds $4 billion, has spent years trying to develop a resort and guest ranch along the Upper Hoback River Road in northern Sublette County. Now, over the course of the last year and a half, the businessman has moved into neighboring Lincoln County, where he’s bought up most of an “elite fly-in enclave” known as Renegade, Wyo., some 25 miles up Greys River Road from Alpine.

There are no final plans in place for what Ricketts’ camp intends to do with its portion of the Renegade subdivision, according to a source close to the businessman who asked not to be named.

Continuing to build out the resort community served by a paved airstrip is one path forward, the source said. Another option being considered is to exchange the Greys River inholding parcels with the Bridger-Teton National Forest, trading them for national forest acreage that would add to the family’s ranchland in the Hoback River basin, the source close to Ricketts confirmed.

Ricketts owns two larger disconnected parcels in the Bondurant area: the roughly 1,300-acre Jackson Fork Ranch that snakes along the Hoback River and another 160-acre parcel, formerly the Dead Shot Ranch, roughly 2 miles farther up river. Other private land lots  — and a reach of national forest — separate the two Ricketts-owned chunks. 

According to Ricketts neighbor and Sublette County Planning and Zoning Board member Pat Burroughs, the billionaire is buying up any lot that goes for sale along Upper Hoback River Road. He’s recently bought two residential lots in the vicinity of his two ranch properties, she said. 

“His plan, for many years, has been to own this entire valley,” Burroughs said. “And if he can’t own it, he can run every resident out by commercializing it. Who wants to live on Hotel Row?” 

Ricketts has not submitted a formal proposal for a land exchange to the Bridger-Teton, according to forest spokesman Evan Guzik. The theoretical exchange would add to the forest’s Greys River Ranger District while subtracting acreage from its Big Piney District. 

“I’ve heard about (the exchange) from a couple different places beyond the Forest Service,” Guzik said. “We haven’t received a proposal, and that’s kind of where we’re at right now.” 

Burroughs said that it’s common knowledge in her circles that Ricketts acquired the Greys River Road inholding to entice the national forest into exchanging it for land near his Sublette County ranches, and that there have been active discussions with the Forest Service.

“At first he wanted to have the other side of the (Hoback) River,” Burroughs said. “Trade that land in Greys River for land on the other side of the (Hoback) River. That was turned down.” 

Ricketts’ camp declined to discuss details of any potential land exchange. 

The 73-acre Greys River subdivision, dubbed “Renegade, Wyoming” in marketing materials, has a controversial history partly because of its incongruence with the surrounding remote, wild landscape. Initially proposed as the 43-lot Blind Bull Meadows subdivision by Lincoln County developer Dan Schwab a decade ago, the project was met with online petitions, letter-writing campaigns and vociferous opposition within Star Valley. Selling and building out the properties stretched for years, however, and by the time the development was renamed Renegade and successfully plotted in 2018, the community’s consternation had largely abated.

Lincoln County’s GIS server shows that a dozen of the parcels located within the Renegade subdivision are owned by Ricketts, including the largest 32-acre lot that includes the airstrip. Specifically, the parcels are registered to Riparian Lands II, LLC. That limited liability corporation registered a physical address with the Wyoming Secretary of State’s Office last year that traces to the Denver-based High Plains Bison meat company, which is among Ricketts’ holdings. Among his other investments: a 95-percent stake in Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field. 

Four other lots in the Renegade subdivision are still possessed by Dead Man Ranch, LLC, according to Lincoln County’s GIS server. That limited liability corporation was registered to an address listed by the former owner of the development, Schwab.

Largely, the Renegade subdivision is a failed development that hasn’t sold. One of its formerly listed real estate agents reached by WyoFile declined an interview, but remarked the properties haven’t been marketed in a year. Dated marketing materials posted on show that four of the 19 homesites have been sold.

Ricketts, meanwhile, has made regular headlines in Wyoming for his philanthropy. He has a legacy of giving, including to Sublette County causes recently. 

On Feb. 13, Ricketts announced a $1-million donation to the Sublette County Health Foundation to make up for a shortfall needed to construct a critical access hospital and long-term care facility. Also last week, the University of Wyoming announced a “major” unspecified financial gift that’s supporting four bioversity-focused research projects in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. That builds on conservation work that a foundation in Ricketts’ name is already doing.

But the billionaire’s real estate plays in western Wyoming have also collided with the natural resources his philanthropic efforts aim to support. The world’s longest-known mule deer migration corridor, which connects the Red Desert with the Hoback Basin, crosses Ricketts’ Jackson Fork Ranch in several places. There, he pushed a high-end resort and won approvals from Sublette County commissioners after initially being shot down. That’s one of several developments that are proceeding within the migration corridor, which is afforded no protection on private land. 

The 56-acre rezone where the resort will go was tied up in court, from which Ricketts recently emerged victorious, according to the Sublette Examiner. 

“He has the zoning to do that (resort) and can move forward with that when he is ready,” Sublette County Associate Planner Tess Soll told WyoFile

Farther south along Upper Hoback River Road, Ricketts is also looking to add to his guest ranch by building an 8,000-square-foot lodge, a 6,000-square-foot dining center and a bunkhouse. A commercial use permit for those operations is set to go before Sublette County commissioners on March 7, Soll said.