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Bureau of Land Management
Visual Resources

Visual Impact Assessment Using USFS's Scenery Management System

The United States Forest Service (USFS) does not have a formal procedure for visual impact assessment on lands USFS administers. Consequently, a variety of methods may be used by USFS staff for visual impact assessment. However, the USFS Scenery Management System (SMS) includes landscape character descriptions and scenic integrity objectives for USFS landscapes that can be used to help assess the compatibility of a proposed project with the surrounding landscape. Strictly speaking, this is plan conformance assessment rather than visual impact assessment; however, the determination of plan conformance would reveal useful information about visual impacts.

Landscape Character Descriptions and Scenic Integrity Levels

The Landscape Character Description is used as a reference for the Scenic Integrity of all lands. Scenic Integrity indicates the degree of intactness and wholeness of the Landscape Character; conversely, Scenic Integrity is a measure of the degree of visible disruption of the Landscape Character. A landscape with very minimal visual disruption is considered to have very high Scenic Integrity. Those landscapes having increasingly discordant relationships among scenic attributes are viewed as having diminished Scenic Integrity. Scenic Integrity is expressed and mapped in terms of Scenic Integrity levels: Very High, High, Moderate, Low, Very Low, and Unacceptably Low. Scenic Integrity is used to describe an existing landscape condition, a standard for management, or a desired future condition.

Landscape Character Goals and Scenic Integrity Objectives

During the alternative development portion of the USFS planning process, the potential and historical aspects of the Landscape Character Description are used to develop achievable Landscape Character Options in concert with other resource and social demands. Landscape Character Descriptions and associated Scenic Integrity levels, long- and short term, are identified for each option and alternative. Once a plan is adopted, desired scenic integrity levels become official Scenic Integrity Objectives with associated standards and guidelines for maintaining or enhancing current conditions.

More information about Landscape Character can be found in Chapter 1 of the USFS Agriculture Handbook 701 Landscape Aesthetics: A Handbook for Scenery Management (1996, 264 pp). Scenic Integrity is discussed in Chapter 2 of Handbook 701, and examples of Scenic Integrity Objectives are provided in Appendix H. More information about forest plan conformance is available under USFS Visual Resource Management.

Determining Forest Plan Conformance

Once a landscape character goal and scenic integrity objective have been established for an area, the compatibility of projects proposed for the area can be assessed by assessing the effect the addition of the project to the landscape would have on the area's landscape character and the landscape's scenic integrity. Changes to the existing landscape character and scenic integrity are components of the project's visual impact. Assessing these changes requires determination of the likely visual contrasts created by the project, another key component of the project's visual impact.

If a project cannot meet the required scenic integrity objective, there are three options:

  1. Deny the project as proposed.
  2. Modify and/or mitigate the project to meet scenic integrity objectives.
  3. Amend the forest plan.