Visual Impact Mitigation Guidance
What Is Visual Impact Mitigation?
Visual impact mitigation can generally be defined as actions taken to avoid, minimize, rectify, reduce, or compensate for visual impacts arising from a proposed project or action.
The Council on Environmental Quality has defined environmental impact mitigation to include:
- Avoiding the impact altogether by not taking a certain action or parts of an action.
- Minimizing impacts by limiting the degree or magnitude of the action and its implementation.
- Rectifying the impact by repairing, rehabilitating, or restoring the affected environment.
- Reducing or eliminating the impact over time by preservation and maintenance operations during the life of the action.
- Compensating for the impact by replacing or providing substitute resources or environments.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) refers to these five types of mitigation as the mitigation hierarchy because there is a preferred order for implementing mitigation. First, the BLM will seek to avoid impacts (e.g. by altering project design, location, or timing, or declining to authorize the project); then the BLM will seek to minimize, rectify, and reduce or eliminate impacts over time (e.g. through project modifications, permit conditions, interim and final reclamation, etc.); and, generally, only then will BLM seek to compensate for some or all of the remaining impacts (i.e. residual effects or unavoidable adverse impacts).
How Is Visual Impact Mitigation Used To Avoid Impacts from Energy Facilities?
The construction and operation of utility-scale energy facilities (and some other large-scale developments) may create strong visual contrasts with the surrounding landscape, primarily because of the introduction of large, complex, and visually distinctive "industrial" structures on a large scale into the existing landscape. Visual impact mitigation measures typically involve methods to either site the project so that it is less visible from sensitive viewpoints or to reduce the level of visual contrast between the project and the surrounding landscape. This is typically achieved by changing the forms, lines, colors, and/or textures of the proposed project elements to better match those of the surrounding landscape, but may also include reducing the size or number of structures, or changing the spatial arrangement of facility components to reduce visual clutter.
All five of the above types of mitigation are applicable to visual impacts, as illustrated by the following examples:
- Avoidance: Moving a project (or its components) to take advantage of screening topography or vegetation.
- Minimization: Painting a structure to match its background to minimize visual contrast with the existing landscape.
- Rectification: Revegetation of an area disturbed during project construction.
- Reducing or eliminating over time: Continued removal of invasive plants species arising from site disturbance.
- Compensation: Eradication of mining scars visible within the same regional landscape but unconnected to a proposed wind energy project.
Why Do Federal Agencies Specify Mitigation Actions?
The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) is the federal law that requires the preparation of environmental impact statements for actions involving federal agencies with potentially significant environmental impacts. NEPA and other laws and regulations require that potential mitigation measures must be included in environmental impact assessments, and many agencies have policies requiring the implementation of mitigation actions to avoid or reduce visual impacts of energy and other projects developed on agency-administered lands and waters. Mitigation measures are an important part of a visual impact assessment because they will identify if and how the impacts of a project can be reduced. Including effective mitigation measures in the early stages of a project may influence the project design to avoid or minimize potentially large visual impacts.
Federal Visual Impact Mitigation Guidance
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service have issued a number of visual impact mitigation guidance documents, and some other federal agencies have included mitigation in their visual resource guidance documents. A number of non-federal agencies have also published visual impact mitigation guidance.
Visual Impact Mitigation Research and Technical Reports
In addition to the visual impact mitigation guidance documents noted above, the BLM and the U.S. Department of Energy have sponsored visual impact mitigation research studies.