Ricketts paves new paths

Joy Ufford photo

SUBLETTE COUNTY – Enough people were curious about what billionaire Joe Ricketts had to say of his plans for a luxury resort at Jackson Fork Ranch near rural Bondurant and other rumors to fill the Pinedale Library’s Lovatt Room.

Peter Scherbel, Sublette County Chamber of Commerce board president, opened by saying Ricketts’ appearance that evening was to share his plans for Jackson Fork Ranch and other properties in an informational setting.

Ricketts addressed the quiet crowd, saying of his agricultural holdings on the very rural Upper Hoback Road, “Whatever’s done there, there’s going to be people for it, there’s going to be people against it.”

The luxury resort – The Homestead – results from the Jackson Fork Ranch (JFR) proposal to rezone 56 acres of three connected triangles of hillside agricultural property into a recreational-services district allowing a hotel and related development. Sublette County commissioners approved it two years ago.

More recently, Ricketts’ agent Morgan Fischer worked to expand the smaller JFR guest ranch’s permit to cover remaining acres. That did not get commissioners’ majority approval.

All of Ricketts’ “plans and dreams” coming before county boards and officials were, and will likely still be, closely watched by Hoback Basin landowners, Ricketts’ neighbors and those who dread an expansion from Jackson south to Bondurant.

But in this particular crowd, many people from in and around Pinedale appeared to welcome Ricketts’ planned massive financial investment in the county and even the possibility that he just might buy White Pine Resort, after second thoughts.

“I’m proud to be very rich because we took advantage of the free enterprise system,” he told the appreciative crowd. “I give tens of millions of dollars away every year. I gave a million dollars to the (Sublette County) hospital.”

The crowd applauded for the first but not last time.

Ricketts threaded history, personal, wildlife and ecology lessons into his presentation, with tourism and business as the focus.

Calling his address “Little Jackson Hole” instead of “Bondurant” is more a “charming” way to advertise and market his ranch, resort and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, he said. “If I was going to advertise ‘Bondurant’ to people from Los Angeles or New York, no one would know where it is. But if I advertise ‘Little Jackson Hole,’ everyone knows where it is.”

He predicted western Wyoming’s tourist numbers would multiply 10 times in as many years. “These wonderful tourists” could destroy the ecosystem while trying to experience it so “human interference” calls for stepping in to educate and manage them.

“We need tourists,” he said. But they might accidentally walk on scree fallen from mountainsides and disturb “millions and millions of moths” that grizzlies thrive on. And people want to pay money to “participate in conservation.”

The Homestead’s first phase will be a 20-room lodge and two fourplexes, followed by six sixplexes, Ricketts explained, and they will cost plenty, Ricketts said

Willing wealthy “ecotourists” want to learn about and invest in conservation, perhaps one of the Ricketts Foundation causes, while the Ricketts-endowed University of Wyoming biologist studies local wildlife in detail.

Being situated close to important mule deer, pronghorn and elk migration corridors and habitat, tourists can learn more about the history of migration and participate.

The Homestead Resort will provide all of that – and much more – to high-paying guests who will park their cars in an underground lot after driving on the new road built on Jackson Fork Ranch. Guests won’t see the valley floor; people below won’t see his resort. Also planned are a doctor’s office, beauty shop, spa, horse operation, retail and a restaurant open to the public.

He hopes of the resort’s 134 future employees, many will come from Sublette County.

“No plans, only dreams” for the Dead Shot Ranch, or his Greys River inholding just over the top of the Wyoming Range from the Hoback River’s headwaters. “Like a lot of people, I dream.”

“I’m proud to be a billionaire; I’m proud,” he humble-bragged, relating a life of poverty, sacrifice, old clothes and a leaky roof before the dream of TD Ameritrade became reality and brought his family wealth.