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Bureau of Land Management
Visual Resources

Visual Resource Inventory Methodologies

What Are Visual Resource Inventories?

Broadly speaking, visual resource inventory (VRI) is the documentation of the visual resources present in an area of interest. At a basic level, VRIs typically record major landforms, water bodies, vegetative cover, and visible human-made elements, such as roads and buildings. VRIs may also record a wide variety of other information about the landscape, such as prominent design elements (e.g. forms, lines, colors, and textures), landscape character, land uses, and other information about human uses of the area, particularly as it relates to scenic experiences, for example, number of likely viewers, typical viewer activities, and viewer concerns for aesthetics. VRIs usually include a mapping component; in other words, landscape attributes are assigned to specific features at known locations.

VRIs are conducted as a combined set of tasks performed in the office and in the field, and may be conducted at a variety of scales, for example regional landscapes or at a project level. The nature and level of detail of the information collected is typically dependent on the scale of the inventory.

Why Do Federal Agencies Conduct VRIs?

Several U.S. federal agency visual resource programs have a VRI process or component. VRIs are useful for several purposes. They provide a baseline assessment of the quantity, quality, and spatial distribution of visual resources, which can be used to:

  • Monitor visual resource condition and trend;
  • Identify areas for visual resource conservation, enhancement, or rehabilitation;
  • Provide information essential to resource planning and management;
  • Provide information useful to siting and designing projects to minimize visual impacts;
  • Provide information needed for visual impact assessments;
  • Provide information useful for visual impact mitigation, including compensatory mitigation.

VRIs are especially useful for agencies that permit development on the lands or waters they administer or agencies that regulate certain types of development that have potentially large visual impacts. In some cases, these agencies are obligated by law or by policy to inventory resources on lands they manage.

Federal VRI Methodologies Overview

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Visual Resource Inventory is used for inventorying BLM-managed lands, and includes a scenic quality rating process, a sensitivity level analysis, and distance zone delineation. There are four VRI Class assignments. VRI Class I is reserved for special areas where a Congressional or administrative decision outside of the land use planning process was made to preserve the natural character of the landscape. Based on the outcome of the VRI, BLM-administered lands are assigned to the other three VRI classes. VRI Class II lands have the greatest relative visual values, and VRI Class IV lands have the lowest relative visual values.

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) does not have a separate process for inventory, but much of the Scenery Management System (SMS) is essentially an inventory, including the development of Landscape Character Description and Scenic Attractiveness classes, conduct of an Existing Scenic Integrity Inventory, Constituent Analysis, determination of Landscape Visibility, Seen Areas and Distance Zones, and development of Scenic Class values. More information about inventory processes embedded in the SMS is available on the Forest Service Visual Resource Inventory page of this website.

The National Park Service Visual Resource Inventory is a systematic process for description of the visual elements, scenic quality, and importance to NPS visitor experience and interpretive goals for important views inside and outside National Park System units. Based on the outcomes of the scenic quality assessment and the view importance assessment, the viewed landscapes are assigned a Scenic Inventory Value from Very Low to Very High.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACOE), the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management do not have formal visual resource inventory processes, but the FHWA and the USACOE have processes for describing the landscapes around proposed projects that are essentially small-scale inventories (see Visual Resource Inventory: Other Federal Agencies for more information).

Non-Federal Agency VRI Methodologies

Some states and other agencies have prescribed or recommended VRI methodologies.