In these times of rising interest in arresting urban sprawl, managing growth and curbing the loss of farms, forests and wetlands, it was particularly poignant when I read of the recent death of John D. Ehrlichman, who had served as President Nixon’s domestic affairs advisor.

This will surprise you if, like most people, you know of him only for the role he played in the Watergate scandals and as overseer of “the plumbers,” a group dedicated to stopping leaks of sensitive information from the White House. The extensive obituaries in the newspapers would have reinforced that view, barely mentioning his role as chief architect of the far-reaching, Nixon environmental agenda in the early ’70s, the years before the attention of the nation was consumed by Watergate.

Those were heady times, with the newly enacted National Environmental Policy Act being upheld in case after case, with new laws like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act being enacted, and with what seemed like a battle between the Democratic Congress and the administration over who could come up with the most audacious proposals or laws to protect the environment

Many knew that Ehrlichman was the president’s point man for keeping the momentum with the administration, which saw the environment as a winning issue with the majority of Americans. But few realized that his real love was in the issues of growth and land use management; Ehrlichman believed the federal government had an important role to play in ensuring that states and localities would deal with what he saw as the most critical environmental issue of all.

As a young staffer working for Russell Train at the Council on Environmental Quality at the time, I was privileged to observe this on many occasions. Ehrlichman had come to the White House as a land use and zoning lawyer from Seattle, so he had a practitioner’s feel for land use issues and what motivates people.

His nemesis at the time was Senator “Scoop” Jackson, also from Washington state, who had a competing version of the proposed National Land Use Planning Act before Congress. (Back then, “planning” was an acceptable concept.)

It was a real battle of the titans, with each of the proponents trying to accomplish more than the other. And Ehrlichman, on behalf of the Nixon administration, actually began to get the upper hand. The recognized guru of land use planning at the time, Chicago lawyer Richard Babcock, came out for the administration bill, stating in testimony which I have kept all these years in my files, “As a card-carrying Democrat, I state categorically that no administration since World War II has made such a far-reaching and sensitive legislative proposal to encourage the restructure of the institutional system for public regulation of our wasting and wasted resource of land.” Those were the days when testimony really said something!

The content of both bills was not that dissimilar. Both called for a multiyear state planning process with federal funds and ultimate federal approval and state implementation with more federal funds. Key elements were to control sprawl, to manage infrastructure investments (roads, sewers, schools etc.), and to review large-scale development proposals. Localities were allowed to make most decisions, subject to a general state overview.

While all of this seems a combination of Draconian and naive by present thinking, at the time it was considered desirable to establish a federal role to assure the environmental benefits of good community planning.

The two sides differed in the consequences of inaction by a state. And here, once again, Ehrlichman led the administration to the environmental high ground. The centerpiece of the administration’s proposal were sanctions that were absent from the Jackson bill, and the most powerful sanction proposed was to hold back up to 35 percent of federal highway funds from any state out of compliance. Just imagine trying to pull that off in the current Congress! And, remember, this was the Republican Nixon administration!

Needless to say, not everyone in the administration was equally enthusiastic about these penalty provisions. The Federal Highway Administration was especially uncomfortable, and made the mistake of saying so in a couple of internal memos that Ehrlichman got hold of. This resulted in one of the most treasured memos I have in my files, a blistering note on White House stationery from Ehrlichman to Secretary of Transportation John Volpe attaching the FHWA memos and stating, among other things, “we assume that [FHWA Director] Turner’s expressions of disagreement are not becoming known to the public. It would be most unfortunate if they were, since the National Land Use Policy Act is a major part of the President’s environmental program.”

But, alas, it was not to be. The struggles between the administration and Congress, among the committees in Congress and among the federal agencies over the provisions of national land use legislation were in the end too much. And as the clouds of Watergate gathered, the momentum was lost. By April, 1973, Ehrlichman was forced to resign, and with him went much of the political will to pursue the legislation.

The rest is history. While a number of states added to their land use review authorities, and federal funds helped to set up coastal zone management programs in 35 states and territories under legislation along the lines of the land use bills (but with no real sanctions), the effort to deal with growth and land use issues at the federal level pretty much died for a quarter of a century. Only in the past few months, with the announcement of initiatives to support state and local efforts to manage growth with federal funds for Better America Bonds and for a Legacy of Lands, has the issue emerged from a White House agenda. And in the current climate, it is a far different pitch than it was back in the early ’70s.

I had one further encounter with John Ehrlichman. After his forced resignation, and while the Watergate affair dragged on, he found it necessary to raise income for his family. (He had three kids in college at the time.) So he began a series of seminars on land use for businessmen back in Seattle. He came to Russ Train in search of speakers, and I was the staffer who was assigned to help. So he appeared in my office with a proposal that I come to Seattle and talk about the impacts of federal programs on land use. Once we agreed on a topic and a time, he offered to pay the airfare, which was appropriate under the rules. But since he didn’t know the actual cost, he left the signed check for me to fill in the amount, and left for his next appointment. Only after he had left did it occur to me that I was sitting there holding a blank check signed by John Ehrlichman.

In the intervening 27 years, I’ve often thought how things might have been different if we had been able to see national land use legislation through to enactment. At times I think it was a great loss, nearly three decades of losing ground to strip development and sprawl and urban decay. At other times, I say we were kidding ourselves if we thought the heavy hand of the federal government or of federally funded state planning bureaucracies would make any real difference.

What is important is that there is now a new spirit and willingness to tackle these issues. And it is built on confidence that, given the information and the tools, the solutions can be found at the community level. Let’s not lose the momentum again and have to wait another quarter century before we tackle the problems of how we live and how we grow. We owe that lesson to the good side of the memory of John Ehrlichman.