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The 84 Australian studies of landscape quality (to 2008) can be assigned to one of the following six themes. The study contributed or related to the:

  • Designation of a World Heritage Area
  • Nomination of the area to the National Estate Register and complementary lists (National Heritage List, Commonwealth Heritage List)
  • Visual Management System established in Victoria and Tasmania for forestry management, particularly in the 1970s – 80s
  • Regional Forestry Agreement process in the 1990s
  • Environmental management of the area including planning policies
  • Academic research, either as a thesis or as a paper by academics

Nearly half the studies were for environmental management purposes while academic research accounted for nearly a further quarter (Table 1).

Table 1 Landscape Quality Studies by Theme and State

Theme National Qld NSW Vic Tas SA WA NT Total %

WHA = World Heritage Area
AHL  = Australian Heritage Lists
VMS = Visual Management System (forestry)
RFA   = Regional Forest Agreement
EM    = Environmental management
AR     = Academic research

The development of the themes of landscape studies is examined in detail in this section covering the following six themes (click on them to go to the theme):


A hierarchy of heritage lists exists in Australia (

Table 2 World and Australian Heritage Lists

World Heritage List Places of significance to all humanity as defined by UNESCO
National Heritage List Places of outstanding heritage value to Australia
Commonwealth Heritage List Significant places owned or controlled by the Australian Government
Register of the National Estate List of important places of natural, indigenous and historical significance throughout Australia. The list commenced in 1976 and contains over 13,000 places. Further additions ceased in February 2007 and it will continue as a statutory register until February 2012 after which it will be non-statutory but available as a public archive
State and Territory heritage lists Lists under State and Territory legislation
National Trust list Maintained by State branches of the National Trust

In addition there are also indigenous site registers, historic shipwrecks register and specialized lists, e.g. engineering heritage sites.

World Heritage List

The ten selection criteria for inclusion of sites on the World Heritage List are:

1.      Masterpiece of human creative genius
2.      Important interchange of human values
3.      Unique cultural tradition
4.      Building, architectural or technological ensemble or cultural landscape
5.      Outstanding example of traditional settlement
6.      Directly associated with events or living traditions
7.      Contains superlative natural phenomena
8.      Outstanding examples of stages of earth's history
9.      Outstanding examples of on-going evolution
10.    Important habitats for conservation of biological diversity

Criterion 7 covers visual aesthetics and states: to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance (emphasis added).

The 14 World Heritage listed sites in Australia (excluding the external territories of Lord Howe Island, Macquarie, Heard and McDonald Islands all of which are listed) cover ten natural areas and four cultural sites (Royal Exhibition Building, Sydney Opera House, Fossil Sites at Riversleigh/Naracoorte, and Willandra Lakes archaeological site). The ten natural sites are summarized by Table 3.

Table 3 Australian World Heritage listed natural sites and listing criteria

World Heritage Listed Areas (dates of listing) Listing criteria
Great Barrier Reef (1981)
7, 8, 9, 10
Kakadu National Park (1981, 1987, 1992)
1, 6, 7, 9, 10
Tasmanian Wilderness (1982, 1989)
3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
Gondwana Rainforests of Australia (1986, 1994)
8, 9, 10
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (1987, 1994)
5, 6,7, 9
Wet Tropics of Queensland (1988)
7, 8, 9, 10
Shark Bay, Western Australia (1991)
7, 8, 9, 10
Fraser Island (1992)
7, 9
Greater Blue Mountains Area (2000)
9, 10
Purnululu National Park (Bungle Bungles) (2003)
7, 8


The aesthetic criterion (#7) was used in all of these sites except, surprisingly, the Blue Mountains (the nomination focused on its botanical significance) and the Gondwana Rainforests, the rainforests of northern NSW and southern Queensland which is also an area of considerable aesthetic significance.

The eight natural sites that included aesthetic significance among the criteria to justify their inclusion on the World Heritage list summarized their aesthetic contribution thus:

  • Fraser Island: Exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance
  • Great Barrier Reef: Provides some of the most spectacular scenery on earth and is of exceptional natural beauty
  • Kakadu: Features of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance
  • Purnululu: Exceptional natural beauty
  • Shark Bay: Features of exceptional natural beauty
  • Tasmanian wilderness: Exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance and contains superlative natural phenomena
  • Uluru - Kata Tjuta: A landscape of exceptional natural beauty and scenic grandeur
  • Wet Tropics: Outstanding features of natural beauty and magnificent sweeping landscape
Source: Australian Heritage Database

The use of superlative adjectives appears to be pre-requisite for World Heritage nominations! Apart from the Queensland Wet Tropics and Kakadu sites where landscape quality assessments were conducted (Prineas and Allen, 1992, Harding et al, 1987), such descriptors were applied to the remaining eight sites without any formal assessment of their aesthetic values. The nominations were essentially in descriptive terms. Each provided further descriptions of particular landscapes in the sites.


Aesthetic values are included on the National Heritage List, the Commonwealth Heritage List and the Register of the National Estate. The criteria for aesthetic values were defined under the Register of the National Estate.

The Australian Heritage Commission Act 1975 defined the National Estate as comprising:

“Those places, being components of the natural environment of Australia, or the cultural environment of Australia, that have aesthetic, historic, scientific or social significance or other special value for future generations as well as for the present community.”

The identification and assessment of places for inclusion on the Register was guided by the National Estate criteria. There were eight criteria (A to H) and 14 sub-criteria.
Criterion E related to aesthetic value:

Criterion E:  Its importance in exhibiting particular aesthetic characteristics valued by a community or cultural group.
Sub-criterion E1: Importance for a community for aesthetic characteristics held in high esteem or otherwise valued by the community.

Criterion E was subsequently used by both the National Heritage List and the Commonwealth Heritage List. The following data on places listed in each of the Lists was at July 2008.

National Heritage List

The National Heritage List covered 86 listed places judged of national significance (January 2009) including many of archaeological, historic, biological or geological importance. Table 4 lists the areas which included Criterion E in their designation on the List.

Table 4 National Heritage List places and areas under Criterion E

State Places Areas designated under Criterion E
Great Barrier Reef, Fraser Island, Wet Tropics, Glasshouse Mountains
New South Wales
Australian Alps, Lord Howe Island, Warrumbungles, North Head
Australian Alps
Australian Alps, Grampians,
Macquarie Island, Tasmanian Wilderness
South Australia
Western Australia
Purnululu, Shark Bay
Northern Territory
Kakadu, Uluru-Kata Tjuta
External Territories
Macquarie Island

There are however some striking omissions in the use of Criterion E (Table 5) e.g. Blue Mountains, Gondwanda Rainforests. There has been no comprehensive national assessment of aesthetic values to provide an adequate basis for registration of nationally significant areas.

Table 5 National Heritage List – Areas omitted from Criterion E

State Areas listed but not designated under Criterion E
Gondwanda Rainforests
New South Wales
Greater Blue Mountains, Gondwanda Rainforests, Ku-ring-gai Chase, Royal National Park
Western Australia
Stirling Range, Dampier Archipelego
External Territories
Heard & McDonald Islands

In order to establish a sound basis for national heritage assessments the Commonwealth Government is adopting a thematic approach for heritage assessments rather than a values (criterion) based approach.

Commonwealth Heritage List

The Commonwealth Heritage List includes Criterion E covering aesthetic values. The list contains covers 339 listed heritage places (January, 2009) covering many early houses, public buildings such as post offices and railway stations, as well as structures (bridges, docks), lighthouses. There were 120 places under Criterion E but these all comprised buildings and structures.

Register of the National Estate

The Register of the National Estate was established in 1976 and attracted nominations from across Australia, particularly from groups and organizations concerned to protect threatened areas and features. Many places were nominated to protect them during controversy.

Many places recorded in the Register of the National Estate have a component of aesthetic value. Places that have this value alone, however, are not well represented in the Register due to an absence of well-substantiated assessment methods that are acceptable to the Australian Heritage Commission.
Juliet Ramsay, Australian Heritage Commission, 1994.

The Register contains 13,127 places (Jan 2009). A search listed 1092 entries against Criterion E (aesthetic values). By far the majority of these were buildings: churches, lighthouses, railways stations, gaols, courthouses, residences, memorials and schools. Only 36 were areas of aesthetic value. Their distribution among the States and Territories is summarized in Table 6.

Table 6 Areas on National Estate Register under criterion E

State Number Areas
Noosa Nat Pk, Bundaroo Creek, Castle Hill, Currimundi Lake, Thompson Range, Mt Hector, North Stradbroke Island, Russell River, Toowong Ridge, West Hill NP.
New South Wales
Bondi Beach, Manly Beach, Cook Park, Marley Lagoon, Snapper Island, Upper Murrumbidgee River
Braddon Conservation Area,
Hanging Rock, Western Port (plus various geological areas)
Angel Cliffs (Gordon R.), Bass Pyramid, Evercreech Nature Res., Meetus Falls Forest Res., Mt Victoria – Rattler Range, Prince of Wales Range, Scotts Peak Dam & Lake Pedder, Tarkine Wilderness Area, Gordon River splits, Wellington Range, Western Tasmania
South Australia
Cape Torrens Conservation Park (CP), Deep Creek CP, Flinders Chase Nat Pk., Kelly Hill CP, West Island CP
Western Australia
Cape Range National Park
Northern Territory


The list of registered areas comprises a random selection of sites across Australia, certainly not representative or comprehensive in respect of aesthetic values and indicates a deficiency in adequately representing Australia’s aesthetic heritage. The Australian Heritage Commission considered that few listings on the Register met high thresholds for national listing but this is at odds with the inclusion of some on the National Heritage List (e.g. Tasmanian wilderness, Bondi Beach) or World Heritage List (e.g. Tasmanian wilderness). Listing was a haphazard affair.

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A brief history of the aesthetic values component of the National Estate Register

The National Trust was instrumental in initiating many of the studies associated with the Register of the National Estate. In the early 1970s, the Trust became interested in identifying scenically attractive areas and in 1972 the Victorian Branch commenced a classified list and a recorded list, the former being natural and man-made parts of the physical environment essential to the heritage of Australia for which “it would be prepared to fight hard” (National Estate Committee, 1974). Recorded parts were those whose preservation was encouraged. Outstanding aesthetic, scientific or cultural values were the criteria by which the Trust classified landscapes. By 1975 the Trust had listed 23 Classified and 26 Recorded landscapes. In 1975 the Australian Council of National Trusts decided that all its State branches should adopt the classified and recorded categories of landscapes.

With the establishment in 1976 of the Australian Heritage Commission, the Register of the National Estate provided a means for formal national recognition of significant landscapes.

During the latter half of the 1970s, State branches of the National Trust submitted areas of aesthetic value for inclusion on the Register. The Australian Heritage Commission however deferred consideration of them pending the determination of a methodology for classifying landscapes.

In 1979 the Commission engaged Professor Julius Gy Fabos from the United States to review the state of the art of landscape assessment, to examine the studies undertaken and to provide directions for future landscape assessment. Fabos worked with Anne McGregor of the University of Melbourne.

Fabos and McGregor reviewed 40 studies including 24 from Australia. Their report (1979) was critical of the National Trust’ nominations, stating (p 5):

All nominations by the National Trust we reviewed have apparently been assessed on an incremental basis, site by site, without analysis of those values in relation to significant landscapes of the same kind within Australia, or without any cross-comparison of different categories of places and of individual sites within those categories on a national basis. The data base for these assessments was usually poor. Procedures used were either vague or only suggestive: the steps taken by the assessors were not clearly specified.

Fabos and McGregor found that 75% of the studies were based on poorly described procedures which appeared to be some sort of subjective elitist or professional judgement. Of 24 Australian studies, only four attempted to develop or include a valuation procedure. Four studies bypassed valuation altogether. Many “scenery assessments attempted to support subjective judgement by referring to some sort of ecological principle(s)”.. Only half the Australian studies provided sufficient methodological information to enable the study to be replicated by others. Only one third of the Australian studies adequately covered all significant factors or parameters. Most studies had low predictive capability.

Fabos& McGregor Report, 1979

The authors asserted that landscape assessment had moved from the general holistic to the more parametric quantitative method (i.e. psychophysical). They proposed classifying studies into three levels:

  • Level 1 General or policy level to provide an overall perspective at national and State levels; - e.g. the Visual Management System developed by the Forests Commission of Victoria
  • Level 2 Assessment of regional landscapes defining landscape types, quality classes, and protection alternatives; e.g. Hunter Region.
  • Level 3 Site assessment and evaluation of significant landscape features; e.g. Uluru

The Australian Heritage Commission had worked at Level 2 but not Level 1. Fabos and McGregor proposed:

There is an urgent need for the Australian Heritage Commission to take a serious look at the National Estate at the national level. An overview is needed:

  • to achieve a general understanding of what Australia has;
  • to identify the significant areas which should be considered for the National Estate Register;
  • to determine the distribution of quality landscapes of concern; to establish some value system, norms or standards for the National Estate

This level of concern should be the prelude to all the level 2 activities (regions) which are undertaken by the AHC at present. That is, the first sifting of nominations should be an analysis of the place in relation to the level one assessment. Its significance in regard to quality, uniqueness and other pertinent parameters (at level 2) should be assessed within the context of the National Estate.

To date (2009), neither the Commission nor its successor has attempted to identify significant landscapes from the national viewpoint. It was heavily involved in the Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) process which included aesthetic factors. More recently it developed the concept of Inspirational Landscapes. The protocol for conducting studies of scenic quality aims to provide authorities with the assurance to embark on nationally based assessments of scenic quality.

The Fabos/McGregor report was the subject of considerable discussion by the Australian Council of National Trusts and the Australian Heritage Commission including a 2 day conference in Adelaide in May 1979. This conference concluded:

There was not a single method suitable for all States to adopt, but several positions had emerged from which they could work towards a greater use of parametric systems (Australian Council of National Trusts, 1979)

Maud McBriar who spearheaded South Australian nominations through the National Trust, believed the conclusion influenced the Australian Heritage Commission not to accept landscapes nominated for the Registrar of the National Estate until “a basis of assessment by professionals is found by which evaluations can be defensible in a court of law.” (Lothian, 1984).

According to a Commission source, the Commission considered the report not very helpful as it would require a greater scale of resource input than was available (Dr W. Nicholls A.H.C., pers. com., quoted in Lothian, 1984).

Over a decade later, in 1991, the AHC supported the preparation of a discussion paper on a method for assessing the aesthetic values of landscapes (O’Brien and Ramsay, 1992). The paper sought to overcome the difficulties with landscape nominations involving aesthetic values and their assessment. It proposed an expert approach which took into account broader interpretations of aesthetic value than purely visual quality and proposed mapping of landscape units based on GIS. Ramsay (1994) stated:

… the project was initiated because of the poor descriptions of aesthetic value that accompanied many landscape nominations and because the methods employed by professionals … did not meet the AHC’s criterion for assessment of aesthetic value. The discussion paper proposed a method which could be applied by experts to landscapes similar in scale and type to those that were commonly nominated. The method also took into account a range of aspects of aesthetic quality and suggested a process for comparative evaluation.

The approach adopted by the Commission, and later the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, to assess the aesthetic values of landscapes has been directed by statutory criteria. Criterion E states that the aesthetic value must be “valued by a community or cultural group”. The Commonwealth considers that quantitative expert assessment would not satisfy the criteria unless clearly validated by the community. However the wording could cover the entire community as well as distinct groups within it. The approach uses both quantitative and qualitative methods drawing on a range of sources of value appreciation to establish its strength. While expert opinion may be included, it must include community value. The national heritage list requires sound evidence of the value. 

O'Brien & Ramsay Report, 1991

Obrien & Ramsay

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Inspirational Landscapes

In 2001 the Australian Heritage Commission initiated the Inspirational Landscapes project to understand the qualities of outstanding natural landscapes that have inspired Australians, and thereby better assess their national heritage value. The concept was considered a suitable theme for national heritage recognition but a method was required to provide clear and repeatable results, measurable values that could meet thresholds, and be defensible in court (Johnston and Ramsay, 2006).

The Commission was involved in developing the methodology for assessing the National Estate values (including landscape assessment) for the Regional Forest Assessments (RFA) program. In the run up to the introduction of the new Commonwealth heritage legislation, introduced in 2004, the Commission commenced a number of studies to provide context to potential national heritage places that would require assessments against the National Heritage criteria. The Inspirational Landscapes project was one of those studies. It built on the RFA work and the way in which experiential value was sought with evidence obtained from as many sources as possible. The aesthetics criterion for the national heritage list is

the place has outstanding heritage value to the nation because of the place’s importance in exhibiting particular aesthetic characteristics valued by a community or cultural group;

Inspirational ls

Inspirational landscapes were defined as places associated with positive and inspiring aesthetic or cultural perceptions of a place and experiences derived from a place. They may be discrete sections of the environment or vast expanses of landscape. Inspiration may result in art, literature, film, song, photography; conserving and fighting for landscape protection; scientific study; and bushwalking and recreation.

The project involved the following stages:

  • Develop the concept of inspirational landscapes through a Framework Paper, commissioning Perspectives from 11 Australians, convening an Internet-based conference, and summarizing the themes and discussions;
  • Develop, from this research, eight indicators to describe inspirational values
  • Suggest an assessment method based on the indicators covering existing methods, significance indicators and thresholds, and example landscapes;
  • Test the assessment method on example landscapes;
  • Report on the project

The eight indicators were landscapes which:

  • Generated a powerful emotional response
  • Contained significant cultural stories (histories)
  • Were uncommon or unusual landscapes
  • Defined images and creative expressions
  • Inspired action
  • Inspired contemplation, spiritual reflection or refreshment
  • Inspired significant or defining national cultural practices
  • Were sacred landscapes

To trial the indicator approach, a further study was commissioned. A list of 29 potentially inspirational landscapes was compiled that ranged in size from Antarctica, the Murray Darling Basin, and Simpson Desert to Encounter Bay (SA), Sydney Harbour, and the Royal Melbourne Botanic Garden. From this list, five places were selected as example landscapes: Great Barrier Reef, Simpson Desert, the Australian Alps, Twelve Apostles and Wilpena Pound. Again the selection of these is characterized by their randomness. The eight indicators were used to describe the inspirational values and the places were assessed against the national heritage criteria. 
The indicators are being applied to guide the selection and assessment of inspirational landscapes. The project is notable as the first national project to identify significant landscapes suitable for listing nationally. However the indicators of Inspirational landscapes lie outside the mainstream of features covered in landscape quality studies. The choice of the inspirational landscapes concept is somewhat curious and may prove to be rather narrow and confining in terms of aesthetic response to landscapes. Evocative, outstanding, symbolic, intrinsic, restorative, a sense of place or simply high quality landscapes are possible alternative conceptual approaches.

The Commission has tended to avoid the quantitative survey approach to visual aesthetics, preferring the experiential approach and a rather ad hoc identification of significant areas. It is worth reiterating the 1979 recommendation of Fabos and McGregor that the Australian Heritage Commission (and its successors) take a national approach to the identification of areas achieving national significance. A comprehensive structured approach is long overdue to identify areas of significant landscape value for inclusion in the National Heritage List and even the World Heritage list.

National Landscapes

In a left-field initiative, in 2005, Tourism Australia and Parks Australia partnered to designate superlative areas which provide distinctively Australian natural and cultural experiences as National Landscapes. The areas transcend State and regional boundaries and are major attractions for domestic and international visitors. The areas have or are proposed to have sustainable management arrangements, may provide iconic imagery and a capacity to cater for visitors without detrimental impact. They would provide the basis for international tourism promotion.

Areas designated as National Landscapes are:

  • Australia’s Red Centre
  • Kakadu
  • Flinders Ranges
  • Australian Alps
  • Great Ocean Road
  • Australia’s Green Cauldron (northern NSW – Glasshouse Mountains)
  • Australia’s Coastal Wilderness (Croajingolong National Park in east Gippsland)
  • Greater Blue Mountains

The omission of areas in Tasmania, Western Australia and most of Queensland, including the Great Barrier Reef, is surprising. A National Landscapes Reference Committee has been established comprising Government, tourism, ecotourism, academic and conservation interests.

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The US Forest Service developed the Visual Management System between 1968 and 1974. In 1968, the landscape architect, R. Burton Litton, Jr. produced for the US Forest Service, Forest Landscape Description and Inventories, A basis for land planning and design. This was used to measure scenic quality from the forest’s physical attributes. In 1974, the Service published Visual Management System: National Forest Landscape Management. In 1995, the USFS replaced the VMS with a Scenery Management System which better integrated aesthetics with other biological, physical and social aspects in forest planning (see Landscape Aesthetics, A Handbook for Scenery Management).

In 1977, the Victorian Forests Commission engaged three landscape architects from the United States Forest Service including Dennis Williamson to establish a visual management system (Williamson and Calder, 1979). They quickly realized that the US Visual Management System would require “some significant changes” to meet Victoria’s needs. The primary components remained the same but adjustments were made to accommodate Victoria’s physical and social conditions. Figure 1 summarises the components and the relationships in the Victorian VMS.

Victorian VMS studies

Source: Williamson and Chalmers, 1982
Figure 1 Victoria’s Visual Management System

Basic to the VMS was the delineation of landscape character types for Victoria. Nine types were defined covering the various regions – e.g. Murray Basin plains, eastern Highlands, Grampians. The areas were defined from an inventory of the landforms, land cover, waterforms and land use (Forests Commission, 1978; Leonard & Hammond, 1984).

Scenic quality classes (high, moderate, low) were based on the characteristics present in each landscape character region. Frames of reference were defined, describing the characteristics of the landforms, vegetation and waterforms present in each and assigning these to the scenic quality classes.

The assumptions underlying these (Leonard and Hammond, 1984) were that scenic quality increased with greater degrees of:

  • Uniqueness in rock outcropping, water, sub-alpine heathlands and other natural features
  • Naturalness and lesser degrees of man-made alteration
  • Relative topographic relief and ruggedness
  • Vegetative diversity and general landscape variety
  • Vegetative diversity and green crop patchwork effects in agricultural landscapes
  • Vegetative mixture and edge diversity in coniferous plantations

This selection was astute and was based on ten landscape preference studies between 1969 and 1976. Interestingly, although swamps were included in the high quality category, later studies (e.g. Herzog, 1985) determined that they were of lower scenic quality.

Following definition of the frames of reference, 40 foresters were trained in their use and, through interpreting aerial photographs and field checks, applied the frames to all forest areas in Victoria. The three scenic quality classes were delineated within each landscape character type.

Resulting from the combination of scenic quality classes, observation distance zones and public sensitivity levels, visual quality objectives were established representing the degree of acceptability of changes in the landscape. Three classes of visual quality objectives were defined: the awkwardly named Inevident Alteration, Apparent Alteration, and Dominant Alteration. Each defined the scale and permanence of any proposed changes to the landscape (Figure 2).

Williamson & Chalmers scores

Source: Williamson and Calder, 1979
Figure 2 Recommended visual quality objectives for landscape management zones

The most restrictive, Inevident Alteration, allowed only temporary changes – up to one year. Apparent Alteration allowed changes up to two years in duration, and Dominant Alteration allowed major changes to the landscape but required them to relate to the form, line, colour and texture of the surrounding landscape. The degree of changes permitted was related to the scenic quality classes – in high quality areas, restrictions applied to the foreground, middleground and background, and to areas with sensitivity levels of high, moderate and low. The visual quality objectives were used in more specific guidance at the project application level.

In 1979, the Forests Commission sponsored research on perceptions of forest scenic quality, using the Ovens Valley – Mt Buffalo area of north-east Victoria as the study area (Williamson and Chalmers, 1979). The study, one of the earliest preference studies in Australia, established that high scenic quality was associated with naturalness, water and variety in landform and vegetation. It concluded that the VMS accurately reflected public perceptions but placed insufficient emphasis on naturalness, and too much on visual variety. For the first time in Australia, the assumptions underlying expert assessments were tested and refined through empirical research.

The VMS has now ceased to operate in Victoria due to a Government decision.

The Tasmanian Forestry Commission commenced a visual management system in 1979, closely following the Victorian model and the US Forestry Service system (Forestry Commission, 1983; Hepper, 1984) and was formally adopted by Tasmania in 1983. In Tasmania, the system was intended to be applied to the 16,000 km2 of forest land controlled by the Commission but has progressively been applied to forested Crown land and to private forests totally 24,000 km2, around 35% of the State.  The VMS was applied at two levels, broad scale planning level and project application level. Maps of landscape character types were produced and scenic variety classes defined for each type. Composite maps of public sensitivity levels, visual quality objectives and visual resource management guidelines were also produced. The Commission summed up the system thus (1983):

In essence, this landscape management system develops mapped zones of landscape importance through the integration of scenic quality, public concern levels, and seen areas from travel routes and recreation use areas, using a mapping overlay technique. The mapped zones are used as recommended priorities for landscape management that are considered and weighted against operational considerations and other forest resource values.

The Tasmanian Visual Management System (Figure 8) has many similarities with the Victorian system (Figure 3). Both follow a similar process of inventorying the landscape and social interactions, classifying scenic quality classes and sensitive areas, and then identifying recommended landscape management objectives.

Tasmanian VMS

Source: Forest Practice Authority (Tasmania), 2006, A Manual for Forest Landscape Management
Figure 3 Tasmanian Visual Management System

By 1990, the Commission had developed their visual management system sufficiently to issue a 200 page Manual for Forest Landscape Management (Forestry Commission, Tasmania, 1990). The manual was republished in 2006 (Forest Practice Authority, 2006). The Tasmanian VMS remains in operation.

It is worth noting that the 1997 Tasmanian State of the Environment Report had identified the need for a comprehensive survey of the State’s landscape quality, a situation which the 2003 report found remained unmet. The VMS clearly was not regarded as a substitute for a survey of landscape quality.

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The Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) process was a major stimulus to environmental studies of forested areas, including of aesthetic values. Following conflicts and disputes over native forestry in several States in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Commonwealth and States signed the National Forest Policy Statement in 1992 which aimed to integrate environmental, social and commercial objectives to ensure sustainable forest management for all forest uses. Deriving from the Statement, ten Regional Forest Agreements were prepared between 1993 and 2000 as 20 year plans covering each of the native forest regions in NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia where commercial timber production was a major use. A Comprehensive Regional Assessment was completed for South East Queensland but a RFA was not signed.

Each RFA involved developing guidelines, tasks and responsibilities for sustainable forest management. A key part of their development was the preparation of scientifically based Comprehensive Regional Assessments (CRAs) covering the environmental, heritage, social and economic uses and values of the forests and involving extensive community consultation and contributions.

As part of the CRA, National Estate values were assessed along with other values for each region. Aesthetic values were only one of 14 National Estate values that were assessed.


Early in the process, the Australian Heritage Commission held a workshop of landscape specialists in Melbourne in October 1993 to discuss a methodology for assessing the aesthetic value of forested landscapes. The workshop developed a definition of aesthetic value which was used in the RFA process for the identification and assessment of places for inclusion in the National Estate Register (Ramsay and Paraskevopoulos, 1994):

Aesthetic value is the response derived from the experience of the environment or particular natural and cultural attributes within it. This response can be either to visual or non-visual elements and can embrace emotional response, sense of place, sound, smell and any other factors having a strong impact on human thoughts, feelings and attitudes. 

This broad definition, which reflected the criteria and philosophy of the AHC, implied an experiential approach to aesthetics that included the response to all the senses, not just visual.

Table 7 summarises the years that the Regional Forest Agreements were finalized for each of the eleven regions. Assessments of aesthetic values were carried out for nine regions except for Eden (NSW) which examined the National Estate natural values but not aesthetic values.

Table 7 Year of Finalisation of Regional Forest Agreements

Year RFA region
East Gippsland
SE Queensland*
SW Western Australia
Central Highlands, Vic.
NE New South Wales
NE Victoria
Eden, NSW
Southern New South Wales
West Victoria

* Comprehensive Regional Assessment completed for SE Queensland but RFA not signed.

The National Estate criterion for aesthetic values emphasised the importance of aesthetic places to a community or cultural group. For this reason, the methodology employed in the CRA’s to assess aesthetic values in each of the regions emphasised community input (Figure 4).  

Regional Forest Agreement

Figure 4 Methodology for aesthetic values assessment – CRA process

Identifying places of potential aesthetic significance involved use of community workshops and cultural sources, as well as identification by experts familiar with forest environments, particularly foresters and national parks personnel described as “forest critics” (Table 8). Cultural sources included literature (novels, poetry, plays), music and songs, fine arts and film, historical photography and tourism images, crafts, applied landscape research, community perception studies and land data. In most of the regions, duplication of places occurred which assisted in identifying the significant places. The intention was to have aesthetic values identified and substantiated by different sources as well as the community.

Table 8 Summary of aesthetic places nominations by region

Region Sources of aesthetic places nominated Number
  Community Cultural Forest Nat. Parks Existing Other Identified Listed
SE Qld
NE Vic
East Gipp
West Vic

(1) Likely to include duplication of places
(2) Covered only cultural sources

Thresholds were set to determine whether the nominations met the National Estate criterion. Due probably to the evolutionary nature of the entire CRA process, the thresholds varied from region to region. Five different sets of threshold criteria were defined (Table 9).

Table 9 Commonality of threshold criteria

RMS threshold commonality

  • In the Central Highlands (1994) and East Gippsland (1997) the criteria for aesthetic attributes of the places were: stronger than other places, identified from a range of sources, evaluated by expert technique, the type of place was rare in the region or of an uncommon value within the landscape character type, and the place had clear form, prominence or was of symbolic importance.
  • Tasmania (1997) identified the places at community workshops which were assessed as significant through social values study, and/or identified by the community and identified as significant in cultural project and by foresters. South East Queensland (1998) adopted Tasmania’s thresholds and added the ability to map the places, and that they had integrity of aesthetic value from their earliest depiction.
  • South West Western Australia (1998) based thresholds on three datasets: a review of tourism literature, foresters, and a social values study.
  • In North East NSW (1999) and southern NSW (2000) the places were identified by forest staff and the community, there was good locational data and the places had geographic spread, the sites were on the National Estate Register, and the number of sites was manageable given limited resources.
  • North East Victoria (1999), Gippsland (2000) and west Victoria (2000) each followed an identical three stage process to thresholds: Step 1 Places were identified by workshops of the community and foresters; Step 2 Information on the places was reviewed, field reconnaissance carried out, remoteness considered and secondary sources examined; Step 3 Places were strongly identified by primary community sources or supported by foresters, remote places were strongly identified of high value and supported by other sources or experts.

The following observations derive from the identification of places of aesthetic value through the RFA process:

  • In addition to aesthetic values, requirements under eight other Acts and Conventions resulted in a range of other assessments. Deficiencies in the assessment of any of the values may thus be compensated by the identification of other values
  • The entire process took over seven years and provided 20 year plans with reviews every five years. This provides an opportunity to make good any gross deficiencies.
  • The method was essentially experiential – the experiences obtained by the community through its interaction with the landscape (Ramsay, 1999). The qualities considered in assessing aesthetic value included: abstract qualities, evocative responses, meanings, landmark quality, and landscape integrity (Ramsay, 1993). Obtaining results which were consistent was a challenge.
  • The derivation of nominations varied widely from region to region, some being very thorough, others somewhat cursory. Input by the community, by foresters, and a review of cultural sources, were all core requirements and met by most but not all regions. The reports of several assessments stated that many other potentially significant aesthetic places were probably present in the regions.
  • The definition of thresholds to determine eligibility for National Estate consideration was critical and it is of concern that there was so much variation across the regions. Places that made the grade in one region may have been excluded from another region. Factors such as the ability to map the places, good geographic spread of places, and the manageability of the number of sites are of doubtful relevance for inclusion.
  • As the number of places per region may include duplicates it is difficult to identify the number of unique sites. However the large reduction from places identified to places nominated following consideration of thresholds was striking. Overall only about 17% of places identified were subsequently nominated; in some regions the reduction was much more drastic, e.g. in Gippsland less than 5% of places were nominated. Given that most of these places were considered aesthetically significant by communities, foresters and from surveys of cultural material, the large reduction to meet National Estate thresholds is of concern. It puts into question the validity of the thresholds themselves.
  • The National Estate definitions denoted the term places as significant. The use of this term has its origins in the Burra Charter which was adopted in 1979 (last revision, 1999) to guide the conservation and management of places of cultural heritage significance. Places of cultural significance are defined by the Charter to mean “site, area, landscape, building … and may include components, contents, spaces and views. Cultural significance includes aesthetic significance for past, present or future generations.”

Although the use of the term places could denote a definable locality of limited extent, the term has been used far more flexibly and has been applied to extensive areas such as the Snowy River or Cradle Mountain – St Clair National Park. It has also been applied to specific localities – lookouts, waterfalls, mountains, rock formations and walking tracks.

It is noteworthy in this context that some heritage authorities have detected a trend internationally “away from individual site or place management in isolation, towards landscape and regional conservation planning and management processes…” (Lennon, 2000, 44). Such a trend would fit more closely with the concept of a continuum of landscape quality, from low to high, with thresholds of significance determined by the level but not treated in isolation of their context.

Overall, the RFA process integrated aesthetic considerations with other factors in determining the management of forested areas. The use of cultural sources including art and literature provided an alternative to preference-based surveys in determining aesthetic values.

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Half the studies of landscape quality, a total of 42 studies, were judged to have been initiated to address environmental management issues, particularly to provide input to planning policies. Over three quarters of these were physical studies and only eight were preferences studies, including four by this author. The methodologies employed are reviewed below (Preference Studies, Physical Studies).

State branches of the National Trust commissioned some of the earlier studies. Most of the subsequent studies were conducted by consultants for clients or by planners for planning authorities. Outputs from these studies included maps of scenic quality, policies for planning and management plans, guidelines for development control and landscape improvement programs.


In this category of landscape quality studies are dissertations prepared in various universities across Australia and studies by academics. Theses on scenic quality are summarized in Table 10.

Table 10 Australian theses on scenic quality

Name Date University Area/subject
Steel (McGregor), A.
Lake Mountain, Victoria
Dare, R.
Fleurieu Peninsula, South Australia
Simson, R.
Gold coast hinterland
Itami, R.
Land use change
Tawnsley, M.
Warramate Hills, Lilydale, Victoria
Correy, A
Sydney Harbor, NSW
Thomas, C.
Philosophy of beauty
Vries Robbé, F.
Landscape assessment overview
Freeland, S.
Predictive paradigm
Cale, J.
Manly Dam
Cherrie, T.
Participant methodology
Lothian, A.
South Australia
Davis, K.
Adelaide parks
Wu, Y.

In addition to these theses, certain academics have focused on the study of scenic quality. Key academics in Australia include:

  • Ian Bishop of the University of Melbourne has modeled the perception of objects such as transmission towers in the landscape and undertaken complex modeling of landscape perception (Bishop et al 1985; Hull & Bishop, 1988; Bishop, et al, 1990; Bishop & Hull, 1991; Bishop, 1995; Bishop et al, 2000).
  • Brian Hudson of the School of Planning, Landscape Architecture & Surveying, Queensland University of Technology has researched Appelton’s Prospect - Refuge theory (1975) and the role that waterfalls play in landscape and culture (Hudson, 1992; Hudson, 1993; Hudson, 2000).
  • Terrence Purcell and Richard Lamb of the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney have collaborated in extensive research over several decades focusing on landscape perception and landscape preferences (Lamb & Purcell, 1982; Lamb & Purcell, 1990; Purcell, 1987; Purcell, 1992; Purcell & Lamb, 1993, Purcell et al, 1994, Purcell & Lamb, 1998).

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