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Bureau of Land Management
Visual Resources

Other Federal Agency Visual Resource Inventory Processes

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission do not have formal visual resource inventory processes, but the FHWA and USACE have processes for describing the landscapes/seascapes around proposed projects that are essentially small-scale inventories. These processes are discussed below.

Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)

Within the FHWA visual impact assessment (VIA) process, inventory activities are conducted in the Establishment and Inventory phases of the VIA, discussed in Chapters 4 and 5 of Visual Impact Assessments for Highway Projects, (2015, 104 pp), respectively.

Establishment Phase

The primary purpose of the establishment phase is to identify the Area of Visual Effect, or the study area of the VIA, by considering landform and land cover (possible screening elements) and the physiological limits of human sight. During the establishment phase, visual preferences of the potentially affected community are determined, similarly to the sensitivity analyses performed as part of the inventory processes of some other systems.

Inventory Phase

The inventory phase includes a visual quality assessment, described as determining "what people like or dislike seeing." The scenic quality assessment identifies the components of the affected environment in the project area, the composition of the potentially affected population, and considers the relationship between them.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE)

The USACE authorizes water resource projects, such as dam construction and operation, that may sometimes result in major visual impacts. USACE's Visual Resources Assessment Procedure for US Army Corps of Engineers (VRAP) is a systematic method to (1) evaluate and classify existing visual quality; (2) assess and measure visual impacts caused by Corps projects; (3) evaluate visual impacts; and (4) make recommendations for changes in plans, designs, and operations of the projects. The VRAP is presented in the USACE Instruction Report EL-88-1, "Visual Resources Assessment Procedure for US Army Corps of Engineers" (Issued 1988, 97 pp).

Management Classification System

The VRAP is composed of two parts, the Management Classification System (MCS) and the Visual Impact Assessment (VIA) Procedures. The MCS establishes an Assessment Framework for a project area and sets the visual resource criteria that are used throughout the visual assessment, as shown in the figure below. The existing visual quality of an area is determined by inventorying the visual resources and comparing the inventory with the Assessment Framework.

The MCS includes Regional Landscape Identification, which identifies a broad physiographic area in which landforms, water resources, vegetation, and climate tend to exhibit common characteristics. The Regional Landscape delineation is used to guide the analysis of visual resources, and establishes the appropriate context for the inventory and evaluation of visual resources.

Similarity Zones

Within each Regional Landscape, Similarity Zones are established that are unified geographic area subdivisions of the Regional Landscape. The Similarity Zone serves as the basis for evaluating the visual impacts of projects within that zone. Prior to considering potential impacts of a proposed project, the scenic quality of the zone is determined, based on inventory and assessment of visual resources within the zone. After Similarity Zone delineation, Similarity Zone maps are prepared that can be used in the VIA process.

The VRAP MCS process includes forecasting, i.e., considering what the landscape visual resources would look like in the absence of any new projects. Absent new projects, the landscape might change over time due to changes in climate or ecological processes, or because of human-caused changes, such as changes in recreation and land use. Forecasting is incorporated into the inventory process when there is a reasonable expectation of significant landscape change over time. When appropriate, forecast are developed for both the "with project" and "without project" conditions, and a comparison of the forecasts is used in the VRAP VIA process.

The Similarity Zone inventory identifies specific elements of the landscape that determine the landscape quality and the visual quality objectives of the zone. Inventory forms and photographs are used to conduct the inventory. The inventory includes a (usually) field-based component that includes description of a variety of landscape elements, including water, landform, vegetation, land/water use, access, user activities, the visible presence of litter and pollution, adjacent scenery, sounds, smells, and visibility. The inventory also includes a visual quality assessment, based on the contribution to visual quality made by the various visual resources found in the Regional Landscape. The scenic quality assessment can reflect both professional judgement and public input. Scenic quality is assigned by considering the degree to which each of the five elements of water resources, landform, vegetation, landuse, and user activity are "distinct," "average," or "minimal" with respect to their effects on scenic quality. These ratings are converted to numeric values which are combined to calculate a Total Assessment Value for each Similarity Zone.

Management Classes

The final step in the MCS process is to assign the Similarity Zone (or Zones) to a Management Class, based on the Total Assessment Value. The MCS classes — Preservation, Retention, Partial Retention, Modification, and Rehabilitation — serve as general guidelines for the degree and nature of visual change acceptable in the landscape, the degree of structure or project visibility, and the compatibility of visual change with the study area landscape. The Management Class is then compared with the Visual Impact Assessment Value in the determination of project impact. See the Visual Impact Assessment Methodologies: Other Federal Agencies page of this website for more information about the USACE's VIA process.

Project-Level Inventory

The VRAP VIA process also includes a project-level inventory of scenic resources. This is similar in most respects to the inventory process described above, but the scale of the inventory is adjusted as needed to suit the project and available resources. For preliminary studies, or where resources are constrained, the above inventory may be used "as is"; however, typically, a more detailed inventory is undertaken. The more detailed inventories involve an assessment of visual quality from specific viewpoints rather than the Similarity Zone as a whole. For the most detailed VIAs, additional descriptors are used in the project-level inventory — the design elements of form, line, color, texture, and scale — on both the "with project" and "without project" forecasts.