|Turned earth at the Ameya Preserve near the site for the village area, which is slated to include 35,000 square feet of community buildings. photo by David Nolt.|
Fifty miles north of Yellowstone National Park, in Montana’s aptly named Paradise Valley, an ambitious North Dakota native and Wall Street millionaire named Wade Dokken is planning a unique luxury home community called the Ameya Preserve.
Unlike its brethren around the Rocky Mountain West, the Ameya Preserve will have no fancy golf course, no private ski hill, no Prada boutiques or mega-mansions behind high walls. Instead, there will be lots of wildlife, open space, energy efficient houses, and a host of cultural amenities of a decidedly high-brow ilk.
Dokken makes a rather bold claim: “I’m not a developer,” he says. “I’m a conservationist.” He touts his credentials as a liberal Democrat, and says the 300-plus-home Ameya Preserve, set on 9,500 acres of pristine ranchland, will be nothing less than “the most sustainable community ever built.”
In crucial respects, though, the Ameya Preserve project shares a great deal with other ultra-luxury developments in Montana and around the region. It promises to be an economic engine for the town of Livingston and surrounding Park County, just as the Yellowstone Club in nearby Big Sky has driven the economy of Gallatin County. It’s being marketed to wealthy people around the world who will likely spend only a few months or weeks a year there (a single lot at Ameya was the most expensive gift in this year’s Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog, at a cool $2.3 million).
And Ameya has spurred emotional opposition from many locals. Some are upset at what they regard as misleading and hypocritical promises about conservation. Others are opposed to the proposed sale to Ameya of state lands that lie within the property. Still others decry the very idea of such a development taking place in the midst of rich wildlife habitat. But at the heart of the matter are complex and conflicted feelings about what kind of place Montana is, what it is becoming and who is bringing the change.
Dokken himself publicly put his finger on the issue, declaring in a letter to the Livingston Enterprise that opponents of his project were suffering from “class envy.” It was a foolish thing to say, and he has since apologized. But while one could debate how much “envy” has to do with it, the fight over the Ameya Preserve is certainly in part about “class.”
Like much of Montana, Park County has sublime scenery, but an underdeveloped economy — and most people don’t have a big problem with rich people moving in and helping everyone make money (as long as they’re not rude and condescending). At the same time, though, the locals resent it when “outsiders” fence off land where they had once hunted, or ruin their views, or change the culture of their communities.
More than most of America, Montana has an egalitarian spirit; long, cold winters and low wages create a certain camaraderie. There is a powerful pride of place, and nowhere more so than in the old railroad town and Western writers haunt of Livingston. Something like Ameya Preserve just seems too big, too different, too foreign, too wealthy, too pretentious — in short, out-of-place, a prospective enclave of very rich people who are from a different class, and who might as well be from a different planet.
“My fear is, Paradise Valley is going to be turned into one great big development area,” says local rancher and Park County Commissioner Jim Durgan. “There aren’t many neighbors left. Let’s put it that way.”
|Wade Dokken, left, and Park County Commissioners Jim Durgan, middle, and Dick Murphy, right, at a site visit to the Ameya Preserve in September 2006. Photo by David Nolt.|
Wade Dokken himself is much less the outsider than those who will buy homes at Ameya Preserve. He grew up in the cattle country of North Dakota. His father worked for a time as a miner in Butte, and Dokken spent many summers in Montana. He went to the University of North Dakota and later got a job as a stock broker at Paine Webber in Minneapolis.
Dokken was evidently very good at his job, and he eventually joined American Skandia, the money-management arm of a Swedish insurance company. By 2000, he had worked his way up to chief executive of the company. When he left in 2003 (after a scandal at the parent company forced the sale of American Skandia) he was a wealthy man and ready to return to the West.
Dokken is a commanding presence, tall and hefty with a groomed goatee and feathered hair. His speech is matter-of-fact, but he can be quite engaging, and is also given to a certain grandiosity: He describes the Ameya Preserve property, formerly the Bullis Creek Ranch, as “arguably the most important land in the lower 48 to conserve.” In planning the development, Dokken says he and his partners “created a new way to live.”
Unlike many a Wall Street mogul, Dokken’s politics are decidedly liberal. He describes himself as “an FDR-Truman-Kennedy-Johnson-Humphrey-McGovern-Carter-Clinton Democrat.” He often casts Ameya Preserve in distinctly political terms.
Environmental protection is one pole of that political philosophy, and free-market capitalism is the other.
In a May 2007 vision letter, Dokken emphasized his and his partners’ high-minded goals: “Throughout our previous careers, we gave time and money to conservation and other worthy causes. That commitment is now our first order of business…Our core mission is to use limited, very carefully designed development as a funding source to save substantial and important land and wildlife…And, as we have undertaken to create amenities that are inherent to our green values, we are harnessing the power of private capital for public good — philanthropy, the arts, the sciences, the humanities and our shared environment.”
On a September 2007 visit to his property, Dokken elaborated on his motivation for creating the Ameya Preserve.
“I was trying to find a free-market alternative that exists for conservation goals,” Dokken told NewWest.Net. “I wanted something that had very high environmental values that justified an investment.”
Dokken and his two primary partners, brother-in-law Jaime Prieto and Stan Feagler, are all new to the development world. Prieto spent more than two decades in the marketing business, orchestrating public images for such brands as Coca-Cola and Kraft Foods and eventually serving as worldwide director for the Motorola account at marketing powerhouse Ogilvy & Mather.
Stan Feagler spent 17 years at the luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent, working his way up to CFO, and met Dokken when the Ameya project was in its infancy. Prieto and Feagler both moved their families to Montana soon after Dokken purchased his property.
Dokken’s sister Lisa — whose husband is Jamie Prieto — describes her brother as very gregarious and deeply committed to both conservation and social work, and she says both passions led to the project.
“It’s just kind of a culmination of things for him,” Lisa Dokken explains. “To be able to build and create something that he thinks is incredibly worthwhile for the better cause, to be able to do something that is out in the forefront, cutting-edge of environmental stuff. But also to create an economic model that could be successful while also taking that and sharing a large chunk of it with the broader community of Livingston and within the issues of conservation and poverty alleviation.”
Wade Dokken’s political liberalism, though, is not doctrinaire. He broke ranks with his party in 2000 when he penned New Century New Deal: How to Turn Your Wages into Wealth through Social Security Choice. In the book, Dokken argues for the privatization of social security by allowing Americans to voluntarily invest in private accounts (a policy that would, not incidentally, be enormously beneficial to money management firms like American Skandia).
Dokken described privatization as “a golden opportunity to appeal to the dreams and aspirations of the new investor class” and wrote in his book, “The liberal leadership and left-wing allies of my party have always preferred welfare over wealth creation and anti-Wall Street populism to new investor class pragmatism.”
Dokken’s bootstraps-by-portfolio view on social security is similar to his view on conservation. During Dokken’s tenure on the board of directors of the Connecticut Nature Conservancy he read Dutch author Bjorn Lomborg’s book The Skeptical Environmentalist. Lomborg’s work is widely criticized in the scientific community, and though Dokken does not support all of Lomborg’s assertions, he found inspiration for his new mission in Lomborg’s words.
“I disagree with most of the book,” Dokken says, “but the basic insight is there are free market ways to do more leverageable things.”
At Ameya Preserve, the selling point for the buyers will be beauty and sustainability on the one hand, and culture on the other.
Dokken says he’ll put 8,000 of the 9,500 acres he owns into a conservation easement. He is spending heavily on environmental studies and sophisticated land-planning to minimize impacts on wildlife and the environment.
Ameya is also partnering with heavy-hitting environmental organizations and programs; Larry Selzer and the Conservation Fund will enroll Ameya in their “Go Zero” campaign to “offset all of the CO2 generation for all families of Ameya Preserve during their entire lifetimes” through tree planting and Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute will guide the green building practices at Ameya to create signature Ameya green-building guidelines “that will encourage (but not force) residents to make their homes as green as possible.”
Dokken has pledged $75,000 to the Yellowstone Business Partnership to help fund the organization’s Framework for Sustainable Development, which will grade developments’ environmental efforts on a broad range of criteria.
And then there are the cultural celebrities. Alice Waters, the Berkeley-based chef and leader of the Slow Food Movement, will help direct a private restaurant at Ameya (which the Wall Street Journal reported, is in exchange for a $100,000 donation to the Slow Food organization and $400,000 paid directly to Waters in an unsigned contract). Jack Horner, the famed Jurassic Park paleontologist from nearby Montana State University, will lead dinosaur digs (Dokken gave $3.2 million to Horner’s institution, the Museum of the Rockies, which subsequently changed Horner’s title to the Ameya Preserve Curator of Paleontology).
The list goes on: the Montalvo Artist Residency will help choose artists for Ameya’s in-house artist-in-residence program. Washington Mall Peace Museum designers Christopher Chadbourne & Associates will design Ameya’s nature center. Toronto Symphony conductor Peter Oundjian will help form the Ameya music program. United States Fly Rod & Reel “Angler of the Year” Craig Matthews will lead an Ameya Fly-Fishing Academy.
And no cultural community would be complete without a visit from poet Maya Angelou, who agreed to speak annually on the writing process to Ameya residents.
On the sales end, meanwhile, luxury real estate specialists Sotheby’s Realty and Synthesis Realty are busy selling Ameya to potential buyers all over the United States (though neither would discuss the project on the record).
Yet despite all of this — or perhaps, in part, because of it — Dokken’s plans are more than a little controversial in Livingston and surrounding Park County.
Park County Commissioner Jim Durgan, who grew up and still ranches on his grandfather’s Paradise Valley ranch, attended a barbecue that Dokken threw shortly after he purchased the property in 2005. Durgan and others say Dokken made an emotional speech proclaiming his intent to protect the vast majority of the property and allow public access. Durgan was encouraged by the idea of a property owner protecting what he describes as “a very special spot in our valley.”
But what Durgan has seen is not what he expected.
“When he first came in, the proposals sounded pretty good,” Durgan says. “He seems to have changed his mind.”
Livingston ecologist Pete Feigley has mounted an aggressive campaign against the Ameya Preserve, calling it “a frivolous waste of resources” and arguing that the developers’ main environmental claims are inconsistent, misleading and false.
“Ameya Preserve is a luxury resort community that will consist of second homes, or third or fourth,” Feigley says. “Luxury second homes are by definition unnecessary. Consequently, they represent a waste of resources rather than a conservation of resources.”
A local hunting and fishing club pointedly turned down Dokken’s offer of permits to bow-hunt on the property, saying the gesture toward public access — always a hot-button issue — was mere tokenism.
There is no zoning in Park County, and ultimately Dokken will likely be able to develop his land however he likes. He says — quite rightly — he is going far beyond what is required, whether it be extensive environmental studies on the property or donations to local organizations and schools. Ameya has received preliminary plat approval — the first stage of a subdivision — and some construction on infrastructure is already underway, though the developers have not yet submitted a final plat application.
But there are two things that could get in the way. One is an unresolved issue regarding two sections of state land that lie within the proposed development, and whose purchase would appear to be critical to the project. Dokken expects to buy them as part of a state land sale program, but the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation has come under fire for doing an inadequate analysis of the proposed sale. It remains in limbo pending the release of a revised environmental assessment.
The second potential obstacle is more ephemeral, but equally important: if Dokken is viewed as an arrogant exploiter of the land, rather than a sincere conservationist, it will undermine the commercial premise of the development. The type of people who would be impressed by Alice Waters presumably don’t want to be viewed as hypocritical greenwashers — and in fact Alice Waters herself is already taking some flack for her involvement. And nobody, least of all someone who has spent millions for the “emotional experience” of a culture-rich second home community, wants to be viewed as a pariah by the locals.
Dokken, by positioning the Ameya Preserve as a conservation development, has invited a lot of extra scrutiny. Now he’s getting it.
(Correction: This story initially stated, incorrectly, that Ameya had not yet received preliminary plat approval. The error has been corrected, our apologies.)
Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a series about the proposed Ameya Preserve development near Livingston, Montana. (Click here to read Part II, click here for Part III, here for Part IV and here for Part V.