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Cedar City • One of the most powerful politicians in the country was at Southern Utah University on Thursday reminiscing about his time at the school he graduated from in 1959 and being recognized with an academic center named in his honor.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was invited to the Cedar City university, which has named its new Center for Outdoor Engagement after the Nevada Democrat.

When he heard the name of the center, Reid joked: "I thought it was a place where young students could be romantic."

The center will work for the preservation of natural, cultural and historical resources on public lands, further develop public lands alliances with the university, conduct research and service projects and make SUU a national center for the applied study of parks and public lands.

Reid touted his congressional record on public lands in Nevada, noting the creation of the Great Basin National Park, designating wilderness areas and a summit held every year on the clarity of water in Lake Tahoe, which Nevada shares with California.

When asked about those in Utah who believe the federal government has too much power over public lands and want ownership to revert to local control, even if it means invoking eminent domain, Reid had harsh words.

"They need a mental examination," he said. "It is just politicaldrivel."

He said many of the public lands issues were challenged in the 1970s and 1980s during the "Sagebrush Rebellion," a conservative movement that failed to influence federal environmental policies.

Reid said such efforts to gain control of public lands "go nowhere and are a waste of effort."

He praised the policies of current Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and encouraged dialogue in the development of resources.

During a convocation session at the school also held Thursday and attended by more than 300 members of the university and public, Reid talked about his early life in Searchlight, Nev., where he was born, and how he aspired to play baseball, football and become a boxer.

Those dreams faded when he got to SUU, then called the College of Southern Utah, after he injured his foot and realized he did not have the qualities to compete against "grown men," who he also described as "returned missionaries."

He also talked about his political career, including a stint as the lieutenant governor of Nevada and head of the state's Gaming Commission, during which he claimed criminal elements who were not pleased with his decisions tried to kill him by wiring a bomb to his car.

James McDonald, the dean of humanities and social science at the university, is excited about the Center for Outdoor Engagement, saying it will add a new level of opportunity for students and faculty and advanced research.

"This can contribute in many disciplines from archaeology to research to resource development," said McDonald.

He said the center will allow those participating a more engaging experience because SUU is near so many national parks and tracts of public lands.

Rep. Jim Matheson, also a Democrat who attended the announcement, believes the center will be an asset to the university in creating a collaborative environment for discussion.

Matheson said he thought the naming of the center after Reid was "appropriate."

"This [center] is a gateway to a constructive dialogue on the diversity of issues dealing with public lands," he said.

Barbara Schwab, who attended the convocation, was impressed with Reid and his recounting of his public service record.

She was also glad that the Democratic senator was treated with respect in the solidly conservative Republican city.

"There were no catcalls," she said.