Three Forks Ranch owner David Pratt joined Indagare’s Abby Sandman for an interview on his wildly successful Little Snake River Restoration Project—the largest of its kind in the United States—as well as his tips and insight into the guest experience at his luxury lodge and spa.
Climate change, pollution, overgrazing and overhunting of nature’s favorite construction crew (beavers, of course) since the 1800s have all contributed to the death and degradation of rivers in the western United States. “When I say a river is dead,” says David Pratt, the owner of Three Forks Ranch lodge and spa in Wyoming, “I mean man and animals have impacted the riverbanks to the point that they’re unstable. When the snow melts, the river gets wider, shallower and warmer, and it won’t support the fish.”
Having grown up on his grandfather’s dairy farm, Pratt has “ranching in [his] blood.” In 1997, after scouring the west for property, he and his wife purchased three pieces of land that included 17 miles of Little Snake River in Wyoming and Colorado. This marked the start of what would become the largest privately funded river restoration project in the U.S.—a project that ultimately led to the creation of The Lodge & Spa at Three Forks Ranch.
With no shortage of obstacles and a lofty goal to breathe life back into the river, David Pratt began the (not-so-little) Little Snake River Restoration project. Below, he shares an in depth look into the strategy, challenges and incredible successes of the project, plus the way it drives the guest experience at the lodge and his top tips on making the most of your stay.
What was the overall strategy for Little Snake River Restoration Project and how did it come together?
“The goal was to put the river back the way it was in 1865—prior to man and animals overgrazing the banks. David Rosgin, one of the foremost river morphologists, looked at the project and got very excited about it because we had the headwaters and, at the time, about 17 miles of river. If we hadn’t had the headwaters of the river here on the ranch, we wouldn’t have been able to do the project. We sat down with him and put a plan together. We had to seek permits from the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE)—that took about 18 months because they didn’t think we’d be able to finish the project. We went to Washington D.C. to convince them that we could do it and we did.”
With that external pressure from the USACE on the project, how were you able to get all the dirt and rocks work done in such a short time?
“We had 100 people and 75 pieces of equipment. The first thing we had to do was collect 20,000 boulders from the ranch. Then we had to place the boulders in the river to move the energy of the river to the center and raise the level of the banks a few inches to stabilize the banks. Most of the equipment worked directly in the river itself to try to protect the banks. That first summer we collected rocks, and we started on the project at the end of that summer.
The other thing that we did was put all the oxbow lakes back in the river. (An oxbow lake is a U-shaped lake formed when a curve of a river is cut off from the rest). They provide a spawning location for fishing during high water. There were about ten of them that were reestablished into the river.”
What were the biggest challenges?
“The permitting process was a real pain. The boulders…were not hard, but time consuming. Weather was always an issue—we were out of the river for about six weeks because of the snow and the ice. It was just different every day because of the varying topography.”
How long did it take for wildlife to come back?
“We started in May 1999 and completed the restoration on Thanksgiving day 2000. We could see the fly larvae and the natural fish food as we were finishing each section 90 days or so later. When we got the entire project done and stocked the river, one of the most gratifying things to me was that we saw the natural propagation of the fish. Still now, I’ll go out with a tiny fly to see how the little fish are doing…we see these tiny fish that are there naturally that wouldn’t be there if we hadn’t done this restoration. We stabilized all the banks, and now there’s very little erosion. It’s working.”
How has the Little Snake River Restoration Project impacted the guest experience?
“It was the genesis for the guest operation. We had to figure out a way to share this…so we built a lodge. We get compliments on it every single day. Never a day goes by that people don’t come in with 40 or 50 fish. We like to say, ‘we don’t go fishing, we go catching.’”
What do you think is the best part about a stay at Three Forks Ranch?
“Many spas and wellness centers are in urban areas. You’re kind of captured inside. We have 200,000 acres here that we can play on, with every possible outdoor activity you can think of. In the winter we have downhill skiing, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, even ice fishing…We have six downhill ski runs, there are no crowds—you can easily ski 10,000 feet of vertical in a morning if you want to. In the summer you can fly fish obviously, but you can also hike, e-bike, horseback ride, shoot sporting clays or spend time at the rifle range.
Then inside the lodge, we have 165 original western oil paintings from more than 40 artists. In the new section, we have an Impressionist selection—one of the few four generation Pissarro collections is right here in the wellness part of our lodge [including works by Impressionist painter Camille Pissaro, his grandson and his great granddaughter].”
Do you have any tips for making the most out of your time there?
“If you’re gonna come here, I don’t think you can do it in one or two days. You need at least three and probably more like four or five. There’s just a lot to do, especially if you’re an outdoors person.”
What is the “must-do” activity?
“I would suggest an early morning wildlife tour. One of our guides will take a group on an early morning ranger trip where you will likely see elk, deer, bear, foxes and maybe even a mountain lion.”
What were you most proud of about the Little Snake River Restoration Project?
“The project’s objective was to put the river back how it was in 1865, but also to make it sustainable. We fish-stocked it back in 2000, and we’ve never stocked it since. Typically, if we get a dry year and the water is low, we can still see the effect of the restoration. The fish are still very healthy, and mother nature is still working just fine. Some of our guests have asked why we did the project and my response is always the same: what can you do in your life that will las a thousand years.”
Three Indagare staff members had the chance to experience the lodge and spa at Three Forks Ranch just this year, indulging in all the property has to offer in both winter and summer. Read the review for more details. To start planning a trip of your own, you can book directly through our review or contact the Indagare team.