How a visual resource inventory works

Three visual resource inventory team members rating scenic quality while looking at a view at Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico.
How would you rate a scenic view? During a visual resource inventory, teams describe views and rate scenic quality in the field using defined criteria at parks like Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico.

NPS Photo

The visual resources inventory has 4 parts:


This step is the who, what, when, where, and why for an inventory. Park staff begin by identifying an inventory purpose. Baseline inventory can be useful for documenting the current condition of park views in general. Often, projects (like proposed construction near a park or development of trails in a park) may inspire more targeted inventory goals. In both cases, park staff select viewpoints to inventory that address potential challenges and goals. The park also identifies an inventory team and develops a schedule and logistics plan for data collection.

Scenic Quality Fieldwork

Teams visit identified viewpoints, map and photograph each view, describe them in a systematic way, and rate scenic quality.

To understand the inventory approach to scenic quality, it can be helpful to think about art. There are certain elements of paintings and photographs that make them pleasing or off-putting to viewers. For example, composition helps guide the eye’s movement, striking colors are memorable, and harmonious colors can convey a certain mood, while focal points add interest and hold the viewer’s attention. In landscapes, just like in paintings these elements are the building blocks of scenic quality that can make a view attractive.

When evaluating scenic quality, visual resources inventory team members rate vividness, visual harmony, and landscape character integrity on defined criteria. Considerations include:

  • Does the view have strong focal points?
  • Are there memorable, striking colors, or contrasts?
  • Does the view have bold forms and lines that attract visual attention?
  • Are elements in the view well-ordered and balanced?
  • Are there inconsistent elements like buildings in an otherwise natural landscape?
  • What are the quality and condition of visible elements like buildings, roads, or vegetation?

View Importance Evaluation

View importance evaluations describe and rate the relative importance of the view to the National Park Service and visitors. Evaluations are based on defined criteria including park purpose, interpretive themes, and indicators of visitor experience.

It is important to note that the visual resources inventory does not survey visitors about their impressions of a view to determine its significance. Instead, the inventory relies on observable indicators of a views importance to visitors like how many people visit this view, how long they stay, and are their activities related to the view.

When evaluating overall view importance, visual resources inventory team members rate viewpoint importance, viewed landscape importance, and viewer concern. Considerations include:

  • How well publicized are the viewpoint and view?
  • How much money/time has the park spent on this view?
  • Are there ranger-led programs or educational signs at the viewpoint?
  • Does this view help tell an important park story?
  • Are there landmarks or nationally recognized features in the view?
  • What percentage of park visitors see this view and how long do they stay?

Reports and Maps

Scenic quality and view importance ratings for each view combine into an overall scenic inventory value that ranges from very high to very low. Park staff enter inventory data in a national database where they are archived and can be used in standard reports and maps.

By mapping inventory data parks can visualize:

  • Where the views are
  • What areas are visible from each view (viewshed analysis)
  • Which places can be seen by more than one view
  • How the overlapping scores combine

These maps along with summary reports are tools for describing aspects of views that are significant to parks. They can be used both to communicate conservation goals with neighbors and to guide internal park planning.

Last updated: April 27, 2020


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