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
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...