Sticking to Their Guns: Battling the U.N. and Big Government

By Seth Lewis | July 7, 2008 | 8:19 PM EDT

( - Surrounded by endless miles of red-canyon wilderness, the southern Utah town of Escalante was one of the last U.S. cities to be mapped.

Now it has landed squarely on the radar screen of a constitutional quandary, and city recorder Vicki Schulkoski is fielding the media siege.

"That's all I've done the last two days, is answer the telephone," she said Wednesday.

Everyone wants to know: Why is Escalante (pop. 956) considering a city ordinance that would require most heads of household to own a gun? And why, for that matter, did Virgin, a town 40 miles away, adopt a similar law earlier this year?

While such brazen measures to defend constitutional rights have attracted national attention, they've become a ho-hum reality in southern Utah. Here, in a cluster of tiny towns around Zion National Park, an us-against-the-world groundswell has prompted city officials to take on the world - literally.

In a symbolic protest of the United Nations and its global authority to enforce environmental restrictions, the La Verkin City Council passed an ordinance July 4 declaring the village a U.N.-free zone, making it a misdemeanor crime to engage in U.N. activities.

Now Virgin - which first drew attention with its mandatory gun law - is considering its own U.N.-blocking ordinance, and a pair of other towns, Toquerville and Hurricane, have talked about resolutions with similar overtones.

"I believe my rights come from God," Hurricane resident Don Tait said, "not from the United Nations."

And last week, Washington City, another southwestern Utah town, passed a resolution that supports repealing the 17th Amendment, which makes the election of U.S. senators a popular vote, rather than a decision by state legislatures. Supporters say such a move would make senators more beholden to their constituents' interests, and would - in the case of Arizona Republican John McCain, for example - make it easier for a state legislature to enact a recall.

While southern Utahns are divided on some of the proposals, they're united in their rugged independence, disdain for environmentalist activists and desire for a back-to-basics government that returns to its constitutional roots.

"It's based on the same thing," said Washington City Councilman Michael Heaton. "It's frustration."

Environmental Tussle

Before other towns consider anti-U.N. ordinances, they should know what happened at the La Verkin City Council meeting Wednesday: Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff challenged the law's merit - saying it violates First Amendment rights, among others - and asked it to be rewritten.

While Shurtleff applauded their efforts, he had "real issues with taking away people's constitutional rights in order to protect the Constitution," Shurtleff spokesman Paul Murphy said.

Environmentalists have echoed such concerns.

They've already felt the backlash of locals, who feel burned by the Clinton administration's stunning decision in 1996 to create the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument. The move closed 2 million acres of coal-rich land to mining and development, as well as limiting land-use rights for farmers and ranchers.

"There's been a long-standing grudge in the area because they think President Clinton should have called them in particular: 'What do you think I should do?'" said Liz Thomas, a staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

Now environmentalists wonder if gun-mandating laws are indirect threats of violence.

"Empty political posturing like this ordinance just gives Escalante another black eye," Patrick Diehl of the Escalante Wilderness Project told the Salt Lake City-based Deseret News. "Unfortunately, it can also have real consequences in the real world."

Uncovering the U.N.

The Olympic torch will pass through La Verkin next February on its way to Salt Lake City for the Winter Games - a figurative brush with an outside world the town finds increasingly suspicious.

Critics say southern Utahns have adopted an apocalyptic, sky-is-falling frenzy about outside intrusion, but locals claim they're just worried about their autonomy.

"We just get frustrated because we have to defend our rights every time we turn around," Heaton said.

He knows.

A federal mandate protecting a desert tortoise habitat has cordoned off land and forced Washington City to spend upwards of $150,000.

"Who are we dealing with? We're dealing with some guy out in Washington, D.C. who controls 75,000 acres outside our little town," Heaton said.

Even more than the federal government, locals fear the United Nations and its aggressive measures on the environment, gun control and population control.

Hurricane's Tait, a member of the conservative John Birch Society since 1962, unabashedly believes the U.N.'s goal is to become a global government that will subvert rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Don't believe him? It's right there in the United Nation's charter, he says: "Read the damn thing."