Of all the assets Joe Ricketts has secured in his 77 years—and there are many—a ranch in Wyoming is particularly close to his heart. He refers to it as Yellowstone without the crowds: A band of property nearly the size of Manhattan, running straight through two alpine-covered mountain ranges, along a wide river.
Purchased for $15 million in 1998, Jackson Fork was the billionaire’s first property outside of Omaha, bought right around the time his stock trading company, which eventually became TD Ameritrade, went public. It’s where Ricketts first began raising bison—an endeavor that hasn’t made him much money, comparatively, but which remains a beloved hobby for a Nebraska-bred businessman who made most of his fortune sitting in boardrooms pushing numbers around.
“A person has to be rich to be a farmer or rancher,” Ricketts once wrote to an associate, “irrespective of how they may want to present themselves.” And Ricketts, who made his first million selling discount stocks in Nebraska, prefers to present himself as a job creator, not a rich man. The fabulously wealthy and influential tend to face scrutiny, and he would prefer to keep himself away from the public eye. The ranch at Jackson Fork acts as a buffer between the one-time libertarian and everyone else: A private piece of the American range where his visits can remain discreet and no one can tell him what to do.
Since making his fortune in the finance industry two decades ago, the conservative billionaire has been secretive about the extent of his wealth and how he spends it, going to some lengths later in life to prevent his name from appearing on the Forbes list of richest Americans. “I don’t want to ever be on that list,” he wrote to a friend in 2013. “However, I do want to make as much money as possible.”
Large sums of that money have gone to political candidates sympathetic to his anti-regulatory beliefs, as well as untold millions to causes more difficult to divine. A 2012 funding forecast prepared by one of his money managers, and obtained by Splinter, sets aside $12.6 million for “electioneering activities”—defined as “activities intended to influence public opinion”—and less than $100,000 of traceable funds to individual candidates or PACs. (On the details of these donations, and a long list of additional questions, Ricketts has declined to comment.)
Ricketts is not as wealthy or notorious as fellow ranchers like the Koch brothers or Jeff Bezos. It’s unlikely you would have heard his name. His business did not monopolize an entire segment of the retail industry; he hasn’t funded a vast, generations-long network of think tanks bearing his name. Accordingly, there have been no lengthy interrogations of his particular influence on the economy, or on democracy, though he clearly aligns himself with the people who have been scrutinized for doing so: In 2011, for example, he quietly considered a proposal to defend the Koch brothers against negative reports in the press.
Quietly is how Ricketts usually prefers to exert his power. It’s an insidious luxury available to people like him with the money to buy not just influence, but the kind that doesn’t put a person in the public eye. According to Google’s index of search terms over time, Ricketts’ moment in the spotlight came in 2012, when a racist anti-Obama ad campaign affiliated with his family leaked to the New York Times. Then his associates did some damage control, and his name faded back into obscurity. Meanwhile, he continued to pour money into the conservative PACs he founded, $100 million of which he has told his sons he will leave for them to continue his political activities after his death.
Ricketts depends on his relative anonymity to influence business and politics without interruption or unsolicited input. Since his retirement, he has used his fortune and low profile to evade an audience as he tackles issues as diverse as federal elections and land use. A lot of power in America is wielded by people who rely on the public to be disinterested in them and what they get up to amongst themselves. And if you have enough money in America, there are myriad ways to make sure no one knows—or really cares—who you are.
As a staging ground, Jackson Fork Ranch is an invaluable piece of political capital, perhaps more than it is useful as a bison-raising endeavor. There are at least three homes on the property, and the Ricketts family offers free luxury stays to business associates and potential allies. Serious meetings happen there over bison burgers and outdoor sport.
Before Joe Ricketts decided to donate $5 million to Scott Walker’s 2016 presidential campaign, the two spent time on the ranch together. John Boehner visited to go fly-fishing with the patriarch in 2012. And Ricketts guards his Wyoming residency intensely, making sure he logs enough days in the state to take advantage of the tax incentives it offers for him and his family’s network of trusts.
These extracurricular interests notwithstanding, Ricketts prefers to foreground his ranch as part of his legacy as a titan of business and an American in the most traditional sense. In 2012, in a rare interview, Ricketts allowed the TV show American Rancher to interview him and shoot B-roll of the animals he was raising at Jackson Fork.
“The United States is unique,” he told the interviewer towards the close of the half-hour show. “Hopefully we’re not getting into a situation where we lose that … We’re the only nation that ever has said, the pursuit of happiness is important to our citizens. So people need to take advantage of that.”
Considering all of this, Joe Ricketts wasn’t pleased when the federal government proposed to issue oil and gas leases in his part of Wyoming in the mid-2000s, which would allow drilling in the vast wilderness surrounding his ranch. Ricketts was then worth about $2.3 billion; he owned, personally and through his various businesses, property in Aspen, Manhattan, London, and Cannes, in addition to stakes in a few private jets. But to protect his ranch—which didn’t sell its first bison until 2005—he did what any influential American might do in the pursuit of his own happiness: He spent money quietly to tug at various strings.
Some requests for intervention were made personally, in letters to politicians: According to former Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson, who was running against Ricketts’ son Peter at the time, Ricketts wrote a letter asking him to “take immediate action to stop” the leases granted by the federal government. “These developments would have direct and indirect impacts on my businesses at Jackson Fork Ranch,” Ricketts wrote. Around the same time, the billionaire began orchestrating less direct efforts—conservation initiatives, mediated by his representatives, that centered his interests though not initially his name.
Mike Knuth is a lobbyist for the Public Affairs Company. Recently, he’s been linked to flimsy awards for “Health Innovation” granted to congressmen by pharmaceutical companies. Ricketts retained Knuth to deal with the problems surrounding the oil and gas leases, which were being pursued by a now-defunct Houston company named Plains Exploration. Knuth met with representatives for Trout Unlimited, a conservation group with an interest in local waterways. In early 2007, a group called “Sportsmen for the Wyoming Range,” largely funded by Ricketts and anchored by Trout Unlimited, announced its formation in a press release. The slogan: “We are Mother Nature’s Bodyguards. And Yes, We’re Heavily Armed.”
Ricketts donated an initial $200,000 to Trout Unlimited for what Knuth referred to as “their part” of the campaign. By 2008 he had donated nearly $1 million, some of which was then paid out to Mike Knuth. Tom Reed, a conservationist with Trout Unlimited and the campaign’s central organizer, traveled across the state gathering support for legislation—passed in 2009—allowing for the private purchase and retirement of oil and gas leases in Wyoming, working with Knuth.
Concurrently, Knuth met with representatives of Plains Exploration, using Ricketts’ influence to threaten costly litigation should oil wells be located near Jackson Fork. Knuth and the oil representatives toured the area around Ricketts’ property, noting where wells could be seen from the billionaire’s home.
The governor’s office invited a select group to the table to negotiate with the oil company, away from more visible input. After all, Forest Service initiatives can get messy. With an issue as heated as this, the public comment period would have been full of competing interests. As the then-State Planning coordinator Ryan Lance notes, a lot of people with “large investments” in the area had concerns about where the company would drill. Of the four stakeholders at the table in early meetings at the governor’s office, two were associated with Joe Ricketts…..Read More>>>