Dissent in the Desert
U.N.-free zone • A handful of southwest Utah towns wield ordinances to wage a holy war; Rural Towns Aim to Defend The Constitution.
Published: November 25, 2013 07:22AM
Updated: November 25, 2013 07:22AM

Editors note: this story originally ran in The Salt Lake Tribune July 15, 2001.

America’s United Nations-free zone starts near the mouth of Zion National Park, takes in a few stucco homes, an alfalfa field or two, some shops, cows and horses and peters out part way though Utah’s Virgin River Valley. It is country as lovely as it is rugged and blunt.

Early Mormon pioneers fashioned a congregation here, led by men such as John D. Lee, a fiery zealot executed for his role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. In 1857, Lee and the Mormon territorial militia raided an Arkansas wagon train near Enterprise, a city about 50 air miles from La Verkin and Virgin.

Nearly 144 years later, Lee’s great-grandson, Virgin Mayor Jay Willard Lee, is leading a raid of another sort.

Based on deep concerns that the federal government, environmentalists and the United Nations want to rob southern Utahns of land and water and subvert myriad constitutional rights, Lee is shepherding a movement to ban the global organization, arm neighbors and outlaw wilderness activism.

The latest salvo came on the Fourth of July, when the La Verkin City Council passed an ordinance declaring the city a U.N.-free zone. Virgin’s council is considering a similar statute.

“The U.N. wants the Virgin River,” Lee says. “The global elite are using the United Nations and organizations that were set up to help the environment to lock up private property. It’s time to fight back.”

While efforts here may be novel, they are influenced by an enduring mix of sagebrush rebellion, constitutional devotion and old-time Mormon millen- nialism.

The John Birch Society, a conservative organization whose Cold War clout has withered, still thrives in La Verkin, Virgin, Toquerville and Hurricane, towns linked by a river and a road.

“I’d say 90 percent of the people pushing this are John Birchers,” says Toquerville Mayor Charles Wahlquist, who opposes the anti-U.N. ordinance. “Or they used to be.”

City leaders also share ancestors, grandchildren and church duties. Lee and two of his city councilmen constitute a municipal quorum and used to serve in the bishopric of the Virgin Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. La Verkin’s elected officers show a similar mingling of church-civic authority.

In Toquerville, at a recent LDS sacrament meeting, Ned Snow denounced the United Nations in a rousing speech, the sort of church-pew partisanship frowned on by LDS Church leaders in Salt Lake City.

“When the Constitution is hanging by a thread, [the LDS Church] will save it,” says Snow, a Toquerville auto mechanic and Vietnam-era veteran. “That day’s not far off.”

The LDS Church rarely takes an official political position or comments on matters before the United Nations, LDS spokesman Dale Bills says. “Church members who hold public office and individual members who cite church doctrine, practice or belief to justify their views on public policy do not speak for the church.”

One senses that Lee, 56, enjoys the publicity that has consumed his city since it enacted a measure last year requiring heads of households, with a few exceptions, to own guns. He offers free “Virgin” T-shirts to reporters and has become a darling of conservative talk-radio shows.

While some of Lee’s closest friends disagree with his political blueprint, naysayers have been unable to dissuade a bloc of city bosses from proposing increasingly isolationist laws.

“They have this sky-is-falling, everybody-is-out-to-get-us mentality,” says Gary McKell, a state game warden and La Verkin councilman. McKell was one of two council members to vote against a ban on displaying U.N. symbols on public property that also orders residents who work with the international organization to post a sign.

Under pressure from Utah’s attorney general and civil libertarians, Lee and his brother-in-law, La Verkin Mayor Dan Howard, have reaffirmed that the “U.N.-Free Zone” is symbolic. Still, violators can be prosecuted and two part-time La Verkin police officers resigned in protest.

“It’s an isolationist view and we don’t need it,” says LaMar Gubler, owner of the Sunrise Market, a morning gathering place in the middle of La Verkin. Gubler keeps a copy of the ordinance on a store counter for customers to read. “You could go to any place in rural America and find the same sentiment.”

Dissension has not weakened support. Ned Snow is pushing Toquerville to vote on the measure and Don Tait of Hurricane, a John Birch Society member since 1962, has asked his city to consider it.

Others hope Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who has agreed to discuss the ordinance Wednesday with the La Verkin council, can persuade city leaders to reverse course.

“The last place I would want to go is someplace that has declared war on the U.N. at the same time they are arming themselves,” says Andy Anderson, who moved to Virgin eight years ago with wife Dee and five daughters. The family built and runs the Fort Zion Trading Post, a large tourist shop that caters to the roughly 2 million yearly visitors to nearby Zion National Park. To foster goodwill with Zion’s many international guests, the Andersons surround their property with flags from other nations.

“I would in no way want to offend the sensibilities of people from other countries,” Dee Anderson says. “I make my living off these people.”

But for Lee, the debate runs deeper than pocketbooks. Political deliberations only magnify his religious conviction. More than a few La Verkin and Virgin residents accept the so-called “White Horse Prophecy” ascribed to Mormon founder Joseph Smith, an apocalyptic belief that the U.S. Constitution one day will hang by a thread and a Mormon elder will ride in on a metaphorical white horse and save it.

“If you want to see the hand of the Lord, read the Constitution,” says Lee, a soft-spoken man who ranches, farms and works for a building-supply company. “God is at work there and his work is under attack.”

Al Snow, a La Verkin councilman and Lee confidant, agrees.

“The United Nations would love to destroy the Constitution,” says Snow, a former John Bircher. “They’ll never overturn [the ordinance].”

Snow’s influences are more abstract than Lee’s. A retired NASA employee who moved to La Verkin from California in 1974, Snow is critical of a 1972 treaty that established U.N. World Heritage Sites. Among the designations are Independence Hall in Philadelphia and Yellowstone National Park. Tait and Al Snow contend the treaty infringes on U.S. sover- eignty.

“Our leaders have given up the Constitution for one-world government,” Tait says.

Lee, on the other hand, is a landowner who for years has fought the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance over access to land and water.

Howard, La Verkin’s mayor, is angered by the loss of historical hunting spots on federal land and designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Four parcels within La Verkin, promised in a trade from the BLM to Utah, were tied up after the monument’s designation. Three of the parcels eventually changed hands but Howard says SUWA wants to scuttle development.

“These people come from a firebrand form of patriotism,” says Dick Hingson of La Verkin, who has worked for SUWA. Hingson has asked the American Civil Liberties Union to consider challenging the anti-U.N. ordinance. “The next step is witch hunts if this is not handled in the right way.”

The views of Lee, Howard, Tait and Al Snow coalesced after a recent meeting with Texan Daniel New, whose son, Michael, was an Army medic court-martialed in 1996 for refusing to wear a U.N. beret.

New says La Verkin is just the start of a movement to get the United States out of the United Nations. “A spark has struck. Now the question is, ‘What will the nation do with a spark?’ “

When Virgin passed its gun ordinance, Lee and Daniel New began corresponding. Last month, New agreed to meet with town councils in Virgin and La Verkin where he unveiled a draft “United Nations-free zone” ordinance.

About the same time, Lee’s son-in-law, Sean Amodt, began lobbying leaders in adjacent communities to pass a measure supporting repeal of the 17th Amendment, which provides for the election of U.S. senators by popular vote rather than selection by state legislatures.

“We need to get back to the way it used to be,” says Washington City Councilman Micheal Heaton. Washington, just north of St. George, adopted the resolution last week.

“A good deal of our problems could be solved if we return to the vision of our original document,” says Tait, a Republican precinct chairman and retired Dixie State College professor. “It’s a heavenly inspired document and the men who put it together were put here by God mainly for that purpose.”

The constitutional absolutism sweeping southwestern Utah is grounded in the political philosophy and teachings of W. Cleon Skousen, the 88-year-old former Salt Lake City police chief, author and ultraconservative icon. Lee, Snow, Tait and New all have met Skousen or taken a class he has taught on the U.S. Constitution. Lee and Snow credit Skousen with inspiring them to act.

And ridding southern Utah of outside influences such as the United Nations that don’t appear in the original U.S. Constitution, says Lee, is his prime motivation.

“This has really given me faith in this country,” he says. “It’s a rallying cry for all the people who saw evil and thought they couldn’t do anything about it. They can. We can. We will.”