SALT LAKE CITY — Southern Utah University will be the home of a new center for the study of public lands named for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a former student.
The Nevada Democrat is scheduled to be at the Cedar City campus Thursday to deliver a lecture and unveil plans for the Harry Reid Center for Outdoor Engagement at Southern Utah University.
The university has not released details of the center, saying only that Reid will make a "special announcement" after giving a talk about his background, including his time as an SUU student.
Former Republican Sen. Bob Bennett, who will attend the dedication, said the center's "focus is on public lands and multiple use, recreation as well as preservation, the kinds of things all Western senators are interested in."
Bennett said that interest crosses party lines.
"Sen. Reid is very much deserving of the honor of having it named after him because he's in the forefront of dealing with these issues," he said. "Many of these issues are not ideological."
Reid helped pass Bennett's Washington County lands bill, which set land use policy for the growing area backed by groups representing a wide range of views and is widely seen as model legislation.
"I've always been grateful that the Senate majority leader was a Westerner, who understood Western problems in ways that Easterners did not," Bennett said.
The news was welcomed by Steve Thiese, an executive committee member of the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club.
"I think personally it'll be good for southern Utah and red rock country. There's such a demand to preserve the pristine territory down there, but there's also a great need to expand," Thiese said. "As conservationists, I've got to say it's a step in the right direction."
He said he hopes the center serves as "a mediator between the 'drill baby drill' crowd and the folks that want to preserve it" as well as an introduction for students to "both the benefits and the drawbacks to overdeveloping our natural resources."
Michael Swenson, executive director of the Utah Shared Access Alliance, was less enthusiastic.
"I wouldn't say Sen. Reid is exactly a champion of preserving public access to public land," Swenson said. "But he's not our worst enemy. … If Sen. Reid puts his name on a building, I just hope they do what they say they're going to do."
Swenson said he's "all in favor of the academic study of land. Where I become a little concerned is it seems like in academia today, the direction is ever increasingly a liberal one," that will be biased toward preservation.
Jon McNaughton, associate director of the Michael O. Leavitt Center for Politics and Public Service at SUU, said the center will pull together several existing programs that offer students an opportunity to do research or hold internships related to public lands, including at both Bryce and Zion national parks.
"It just seems like a perfect place for people who would be interested in studying these issues and people interested in getting involved with public lands and national parks," McNaughton said.
He said the new center will draw attention to the campus.
"I think it brings a lot of excitement," McNaughton said. "It brings a level of prestige and it also shows we're serious about making this last, by bringing in someone on board like Harry Reid."
Reid's talk will kick off the university's new "Conversations with..." lecture series, said Ray Grant, SUU academic program officer and distinguished fellow for creative engagement.
Grant said the senator's talk will be tied to his 2008 book, "The Good Fight: Hard Lessons from Searchlight to Washington." Reid will share the stage with SUU President Michael T. Benson and take texted questions.
The talk is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. in the great hall of the Haze Hunter Conference Center and is free and open to the public.