Given Oregon’s historically close ties to the timber industry, it is hard to imagine that a U.S. senator from Oregon could be a co-sponsor of the original legislation that became the Wilderness Act of 1964. Yet Senator Richard Lewis Neuberger was no ordinary U.S. senator.
At the first committee hearings in 1957, Neuberger spoke eloquently, tolling the bell at “the eleventh hour” for saving the nation’s wilderness heritage. He told of the great forests of the Northwest. “If only such magnificent trees might endure forever,” he said. “But are we letting commercialism and exploitation rob us of our chance for unfettered enjoyment under the blue heavens and the stars?” Then he added:
Public life often can be a sort of prison, so my visits to these beautiful places are rare. Yet it reassures me to know that they continue to exist—that, somewhere, the sparkling Lochsa foams toward the sea with the same lilting resonance over the same mossy rocks as when Captain Meriwether Lewis called it KoosKooskee, the river which flows fast and clear.
I know that millions of Americans feel likewise. They gain both security and comfort from the fact that a segment of the original wilderness has been saved. The whole continent has not yet been tilled, paved, or settled. Some of these people may never see the real wilderness; their sentiments are purely vicarious. But they are aware of it nevertheless—just as Mount Everest and K-2 inspire pride among people in remote parts of India.
Born in 1912 in Multnomah County, Neuberger attended Portland public schools and the University of Oregon. He was a correspondent for the New York Times from 1939 until he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1954. He also served in the Oregon House of Representatives in 1941–1942 and was commissioned as an Army lieutenant (later promoted to captain) during World War II. He was elected to the Oregon Senate in 1949. He served in the U.S. Senate as a Democrat from 1954 until his untimely death from cancer on March 9, 1960.
In a 1959 article in the Progressive (later included in They Never Go Back to Pocatello: The Selected Essays of Richard Neuberger), Neuberger noted:
Once wilderness is mined or grazed or logged, it never can be true wilderness again. This should induce Americans to proceed slowly when they alter the character of their few remaining primitive realms because such a process inevitably becomes irreversible. Nature has done well by our United States. It is man’s part that needs constant attention and improvement.
Senator Neuberger’s wife and fellow Democratic politician, Maurine Neuberger, succeeded him by winning the next term. However, she didn’t run again in 1966 and was replaced by Senator Mark O. Hatfield.
[This piece is adapted from an essay in Oregon Wild: Endangered Forest Wilderness (Timber Press, 1984), by Andy Kerr.]