Dissent in the Desert
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.