Land use

Learn how to consider land use impacts of a project under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). This page provides guidance on the following aspects of the environment considered under NEPA and SEPA:

Section 4(f)

Visit our Section 4(f) guidance web page if your project will likely impact public parks, recreation areas, wildlife or water fowl refuges, or historic sites and has a federal nexus with a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) as required by Section 4(f) of the DOT Act (49 USC 303).

Section 6(f)

Section 6(f) of the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act (LWCF) protects land acquired or improved with LWCF grants. Parcels purchased with LWCF require additional work to convert the land to a transportation use. 

Before you start

Visit the FHWA Section 4(f) Tutorial Related Statutes webpage for an overview of the key differences and similarities between Section 4(f) and Section 6(f) evaluations.


Use these essential documents for Section 6(f) determination and evaluation. 

  • Chapter 457: Section 4(f) Evaluation and Chapter 455: Land Use and Transportation of our Environmental Manual describes requirements for conducting Section 6(f) Analysis. 
  • If your project must convert Section 6(f) recreational land to a transportation purpose, follow the Recreational Land Conversion (pdf 85 kb) procedure.

If you need a Discipline Report, use the Section 6(f) (pdf 35 kb) Discipline Report checklist for general guidance during your review. See the Preparing quality environmental documents webpage for more discipline report guidance.

Other Grant Funded Properties

Visit the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office (RCO) Project Search webpage to determine if your project will impact a property that has or will use RCO grant funds. Click on “Theme or Fund Source” and check all options in the list to display past, current, and present RCO grant funded projects.

If you will impact an RCO grant funded project, refer to RCO Manual 7 (pdf 255 kb) for policies and procedures.

Visual impacts

Conduct a Visual Impact Assessment (VIA) when a project has the potential to change the roadside character. In Environmental Classification Summary (ECS), answer the Visual questions to determine if a VIA is needed.

Work that may change the character includes:

  • Addition of lanes
  • Changes in road alignment
  • Addition of major structures
  • New interchanges
  • Changes to historic buildings or other structures
  • Ferry terminal improvements
  • Increased lighting
  • Removal of screening or large areas of vegetation
  • Addition of noise barriers
  • Substantial grade changes
  • Addition of utilities
  • Addition of public transportation facilities

Sensitive areas include, but are not limited to:

  • State or National Scenic Byways
  • All-American Roads
  • Wild and Scenic Rivers
  • National Scenic Areas
  • Tribal lands
  • US Forest Service or National Park Service lands
  • Section 4(f) or 6(f) areas
  • Rural communities that value a view of stars and the night sky if new or brighter lighting is being proposed

If the project may change the character or is in a sensitive area, then a VIA is needed. Contact your Region Landscape Architect or WSDOT Roadside and Site Development Manager, Juli Hartwig.

Before you start your analysis

Read Chapter 459: Visual Impacts of our Environmental Manual for road and non-road projects Visual Impact analysis requirements.

Refer to Chapter 4: Roadside Restoration Toolkit of our Roadside Policy Manual for information about roadside restoration baseline requirements for addressing a project’s visual impacts within the roadside.

Level of analysis and documentation

The depth of analysis depends upon the level of change expected within the viewshed of the project and the level of sensitivity of the viewer groups that are identified. Use the VIA Questionnaire (doc 27 kb) to find out what level of VIA is recommended for the project.

Follow the information on how to conduct a VIA in the FHWA’s VIA Guidelines for Highway Projects (FHWA-HEP-15-029). For details on what type of information is needed for each level of VIA analysis, see Appendix D of the guidance.

Use the Visual Impacts Discipline Report Checklist (pdf 43kb) to review the VIA documents for completeness.

Resource Conservation Areas

Resource Conservation Areas (RCA) are protected through various State and Federal requirements and guidance as outlined in the Section 2.2(7) of the Roadside Policy Manual, and supplemented by Letters from FHWA dated April 22, 2016.

You can find Resource Conservation Areas on the WSDOT GIS Workbench under "Land Use – Land Cover > Resource Conservation Areas" and on WSDOT ROW plans.

Mitigate for all impacts to RCA’s, including planned visual impacts, maintenance impacts, or disturbance. Disturbance includes vegetation damage, soils damage, or manmade changes to water available to existing vegetation. Get approval from WSDOT and Federal Highways. Use Section 2.2(7) of the Roadside Policy Manual to minimize and mitigate unavoidable impacts. 

Land use and transportation

Projects requiring an EA or EIS will need to do a careful analysis of land use and transportation.

Before you start your analysis, read Chapter 455: Land Use and Transportation of our Environmental Manual for a description on how NEPA/SEPA documentation should address bicycling and pedestrian facilities, impacts to transit operations, farmland conversion, resource conservation areas, and Wild and Scenic Rivers.

See the comprehensive plans webpage to determine existing land use in cities and counties in Washington State.

Report authors and WSDOT Planners can refer to Chapter 1100: Practical Design of our Design Manual for instructions on analyzing the relationship between land use, transportation, and community values to determine land use and transportation context and develop practical, sustainable improvement projects.

Since land use often relates to potential indirect and cumulative effects, please see our Indirect effects and cumulative impacts web page for more guidance on how to consider this in the analysis.

Report reviewers can use the Transportation Discipline Report (pdf 43 kb) checklists for general guidance during their review.


Before you start, read 455.08 in the Environmental Manual

If your project will use designated agricultural resource land for environmental mitigation, notify Ashley Carle, as soon as possible. The WSDOT Director of Environmental Services must provide written notice to the Governor's Office at least two weeks prior to filing any formal action to condemn or purchase designated agricultural lands. 

Review the Farmland Assessment Procedure (pdf 22 kb) on how to receive a site or corridor assessment score from the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). Farmland within the adopted urban growth area and farmland that has already been converted to other uses is exempt from analysis under the Federal Farmland Protection Act. 

If a Farmland Discipline Report is needed, use the Farmland Conversion Discipline Report Checklist (pdf 35 kb) for general guidance during your review.

Wild and Scenic Rivers

Before you start, read 455.11 in the Environmental Manual.

Highway and bridge reconstruction that involves in-water work and that has a federal nexus, may be subject to Section 7 of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (WSRA). If work is in or near a river, use this guidance to determine if you need and how to get a WSRA Section 7 determination.

There are four federal administering agencies for Wild and Scenic Rivers that vary with adjacent land management responsibilities: the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Currently the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) is the only river-administering agency in the State of Washington. The terms river-administering agency and USFS are used interchangeably below. Stay in continuous contact and coordination with USFS during project development.

This procedure does not consider the state designated river system (79A.55 RCW). For information on how to handle these state designated rivers, contact the State Parks and Recreation Commission.

Section 4(f) of the US Department of Transportation Act may also apply to WSR and state designated rivers as protected public recreation lands. Check the Section 4(f) webpage to see if work requires review. Find information of the types of recreation in the area in the forest management plan or by contacting the river-administering agency (USFS).

Federally assisted

Federally assisted projects receiving funding, permits, or approvals from a federal agency.

Work that meets the definitions above may require a Section 7 determination if the work is in a designated WSR boundary.

Protected rivers

During scoping, check to see if the river is listed in one of these three protected categories:

  • Congressionally designated WSRs Section 3(a) - Use the map to find the river's classification (Wild, Scenic, or Recreational) and description of the designated reach.
  • Congressionally Authorized Study rivers Section 5(a) - The State of Washington does not currently have any active Section 5(a) studies.
  • Candidate rivers Section 5(d)(1) - Search the Washington NRI list for the river in your area. For work in or around candidate rivers, determine whether the work will impact the river by:
    • Preventing free flow
    • Making water quality worse
    • Negatively affect the "outstandingly remarkable values"

You do not need a Section 7 determination for work in a candidate river. Instead, avoid, minimize, or mitigate for impacts during design and construction. The National Park Service's Nationwide Rivers Inventory website provides guidance on how to avoid, minimize, and mitigate adverse effects on NRI rivers.

WSR boundaries & corridors

Most congressionally designated WSRs have a legally established boundary and corridor. The area between the boundaries on either side of the river make up the corridor. Look in the national forest plan for the established boundary. If an established boundary isn't listed, contact the USFS. For rivers without a boundary, use an interim boundary of ¼ mile from the ordinary high water mark on each side of the river. The area of the corridor boundary can be equal to but not exceed an average of 320 acres river mile.

Work in the corridor but entirely in the upland does not require a Section 7 determination. Contact the river-administering agency about the need for a Section 7 determination if work is within the WSR corridor.

WSRA Section 7 decisions

For all federally assisted work within a WSR corridor, the river-administering agency determines if the work qualifies as a water resource project and, if yes, what the effects on the WSR are.

A water resource project includes highway reconstruction and the replacement or modification of bridges. Maintenance work above the Ordinary High Water is not a water resource project and does not require review.

Find what project information to provide USFS in "Q15" of A Compendium of Frequently Asked Questions Relating to Transportation & Infrastructure Projects (331 kb).

The river-administering agency reviews proposed projects based on standards found in the Interagency Wild and Scenic Rivers Coordinating Council's technical report Wild and Scenic Rivers Act: Section 7 (pdf 373 kb). The evaluation standards vary by project location:

  • For work within a WSR corridor or Section 5(a) study area, the project is evaluated under the "direct and adverse effect" standard, and effects on free-flowing condition, water quality and each outstandingly remarkable value are determined using the procedure outlined in Appendix C of Council's technical report.
  • For work upstream, downstream or on a tributary to a WSR corridor or Section 5(a) study area, the project is evaluated under the "invade the area or [unreasonably] diminish" standard, and encroachment (e.g., backwater) and effects on scenery, recreation, and fish and wildlife values present at the time the WSR was designated or 5(a) study was authorized are determined using the appropriate procedure outlined in Appendix D or E of Council's technical report.

The USFS can make a preliminary Section 7 decision based on preliminary site-specific information about the site, design and construction, and its potential impact information. A final Section 7 determination may require more detailed information, including: project engineering plans and specifications that incorporate adequate measures to protect and enhance river values, avoid adverse effects, and blend into the landscape.

For work that does not meet the appropriate Section 7 evaluative standard

If, based on the evaluation, work would not meet the appropriate Section 7 evaluative standard, work with the design team, FHWA, and the USFS to change the design. Resubmit the new design information to the USFS.

Examples of design change include:

  • Aesthetic treatments may be required if the project adversely affects scenic values.
  • Improved design or a better location for a bridge to lessen impacts on river resources and allow better connection of the river with its floodplain.

If the work does not meet the standard and the design cannot be changed, look for ways to avoid federal assistance.

If work does meet the standard, WSDOT and FHWA may still consider making design changes requested or suggested by the USFS. While some design changes (e.g., increased or decreased access) may not be required to comply with Section 7 standards, their inclusion can further protect or enhance river values, ensure consistency with Section 12(a) of the WSRA, and capitalize on infrequent construction windows and economy-of-scale to achieve shared agency goals.

WSRA & National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

You must receive a Section 7 determination prior to NEPA approval and consider it as part of the alternatives analysis. For each alternative under consideration, identify the potential effects on the natural, cultural, and recreational values of the designated or study river. If any alternatives could adversely impact the values for which a river was designated, or prevent the option to designate a congressionally authorized study river, do not select those alternatives unless the USFS indicates that an adverse determination is unlikely due to the temporary/minor nature of the impacts. The NEPA process will facilitate, but does not substitute for, a Section 7 determination by the USFS.