Taking Liberties

The salesmen say ‘yes’ is a vote to stop government from taking your land, but this stealth campaign would do far more than that

  • Cindy Wehling
  • Three Forks, Montana, resident Norma Miller, interrupted while mowing her lawn, listened to Dondero's pitch about stopping the government's use of eminent-domain power to comdemn private property, and then she signed his petition.

    Ray Ring
  • Cindy Wehling
  • Cindy Wehling
  • Cindy Wehling
  • Cindy Wehling
  • Sitting at a picnic table beside the Three Forks Conoco Station, with his clipboard of petitions and an American flag pin on his visor, Eric Dondero animatedly describes his politicking.

    Ray Ring
  • Cindy Wehling
  • Going door-to-door in Three Forks, Montana, Eric Dondero likes to approach people who live in mobile homes, because, he says, they're 'amazed someone is coming to their door to ask them about a political matter.' He gets a signature from the elderly woman in this home.

    Ray Ring
 

BOZEMAN, Montana — The first time I talked to Eric Dondero, I called his cell phone, and caught him on a sidewalk in the small town of Three Forks. He was asking people to sign a petition. He convinced one man to sign while I listened. Then he told me enthusiastically about his political work: "I’m full-time, all the time! I try to do a good 10 hours per day … I’m a very ideological person. I’m a proud libertarian."

Dondero was operating as a point man for a campaign that stretches from Arizona to Washington state. I hoped he would allow me into the ground-level operations. "All right," he said, "you want a really good story? Come on out. I’m standing in front of the Conoco store, you can’t miss me. I’m rockin’ here!"

I drove west from Bozeman, through suburban sprawl and 30 miles of farm country, to the confluence of rivers where Three Forks sits. The town only amounts to a few dozen blocks, and it has a random feel, trailer homes mingled with small houses, a looming talc plant, and a fringe of new, pricier subdivisions mysteriously growing on former wheat fields.

Dondero was hanging around a gas-station store on the not-too-busy main street. Stocky but not imposing, he was dressed to blend in with the Three Forks community (trimmed hair and mustache, jeans and work boots, American flag pin) as well as for a long day under the hot May sun (visor, sunglasses, long-sleeved shirt). Petitions were stacked on his clipboard, and even as I approached, he persuaded another passerby to sign. "You’re a great American! I appreciate it!" he told the guy.

We shook hands, and Dondero grinned, animated and immediately likable. I stepped back and watched him work. Locals wheeled their pickup trucks into the parking spaces around the Conoco, and as they walked into the store, Dondero asked them politely, "How are you doing (ma’am or sir)? Are you a registered voter?"

He seemed like an ordinary concerned citizen, not a part of an orchestrated, multistate campaign. But the libertarian movement he belongs to — broader and more powerful than the anemic Libertarian Party — has a growing reach in American politics. The movement’s mission is to maximize individual freedom by limiting government power in everything from taxes to judges’ rulings. One of its national leaders, Grover Norquist, has said that he wants to reduce government "to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."

In this campaign, which is playing out in six Western states, the libertarians mostly want to "reform eminent domain" — or at least that’s what they say.

Governments at all levels invoke eminent domain on occasion to condemn property and force the owners to accept a buyout to make room for new roads, electricity lines, urban renewal and other projects that benefit the public. Recently, however, eminent domain has been the target of public outrage, thanks to a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as the Kelo case. The high court held that the city of New London, Conn., could exercise eminent domain to condemn the homes of Susette Kelo and six other holdouts, to make room for a global pharmaceutical company’s 100-acre manufacturing complex. Since then, more than 30 legislatures have either passed or considered laws limiting eminent domain, and ballot initiatives have sprung up from Alaska to South Carolina.

Dondero carried a knee-high posterboard that said simply: "Protect Private Property Rights … Citizens Fighting Eminent Domain Abuse." Each time he made the pitch, he began, "This is a statewide petition to protect our property rights. To keep that new eminent domain law from coming to Montana and taking our homes away. … I know you saw this on Fox News, or CNN. …" He often referred to the Kelo case: "New London, Conn., they condemned this little old lady’s property to take it away."

But the patriotic sales pitch hides something else entirely. National libertarian groups are not just funneling big bucks into this campaign to protect a few property owners from eminent domain. They have their sights set on something much bigger — laying waste to land-use regulations used by state and local governments to protect the landscape, the environment and neighborhoods. Their goal has received little attention, partly because of its stealth mode. But the fact that the libertarians just might pull it off makes the campaign the hottest political story in the West this year.

I began to see the pattern in April, during a conversation with John Echeverria, head of the Environmental Law and Policy Institute at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Echeverria called it "eminent domain hysteria."

"The Kelo case is presented as a caricature in the news," Echeverria said. "Most people don’t understand the valuable development (that eminent domain) can help generate, and how, if it’s fairly conducted, it can produce entirely fair, even highly favorable outcomes, for affected property owners — they’re paid market value or well above." We talked about some of the horror stories, where governments use eminent domain in questionable ways. But those are few and far between. What’s really going on, Echeverria said, is that, "The property-rights advocates have exploited Kelo to advance a broader anti-government agenda."

High Country News Classifieds
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • NATURE EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Our mission is to inspire a life-long connection to nature and community through creative exploration of the outdoors. We are seeking an educational leader who...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND MARKETING DIRECTOR
    The Development and Marketing Director is a senior position responsible for the execution of all development and marketing strategies to raise funds and increase public...
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Coordinates all Wyoming Wildlife Federation philanthropic activities. Tasks include identification, recruitment, and retention of donors, organizing fundraising events, and assisting with grant writing.
  • REALTOR NEEDS A REMOTE ASSISTANT
    This is a business assistant position, The working hours are flexible and you can chose to work from anywhere of your choice, the pay is...
  • CORPORATE & GRANTS PARTNER MANAGER
    Forever Our Rivers Foundation Corporate Partnerships Manager February 2020 www.ForeverOurRivers.org Forever Our Rivers Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, was formed in late 2016 with the mission...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • MEDIA DIRECTOR
    Love working with the media? Shine a spotlight on passionate, bold activists fighting for wild lands, endangered species, wild rivers and protecting the climate.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY - NEVADA
    The Center for Biological Diversity is seeking an attorney to expand our litigation portfolio in Nevada. Come join our hard-hitting team as we fight for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Montana Wildlife Federation seeks an energetic leader to advance our mission, sustain our operations, and grow our grassroots power. For a full position description,...
  • HISTORIC COMMERCIAL OPPORTUNITY IN DOWNTOWN NOGALES
    Nogales. 3 active lower spaces and upper floor with lots of potential. 520-245-9000 [email protected]
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • DIRECTOR, TEXAS WATER PROGRAMS
    The National Wildlife Federation seeks a Director to lead our water-related policy and program work in Texas, with a primary focus on NWF's signature Texas...
  • SPLIT CREEK RANCH
    Spectacular country home on 48 acres with Wallowa River running through it! 541-398-1148 www.RubyPeakRealty.com
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...
  • NEW MEXICO GILA NATIONAL FOREST HORSE RANCH
    43 acres in the Gila National Forest. Horse facility, custom home. Year-round outdoor living. REDUCED to $999,000, 575-536-3109.
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • COPPER CANYON MEXICO CAMPING & BACKPACKING
    Camping, hiking, backpacking, R2R2R, Tarahumara Easter, Mushroom Festival, www.coppercanyontrails.org.