About Research Natural Areas


[photo:] Pioneer Mothers Memorial Forest RNA--Hoosier. Photo by Lucy Tyrrell, USDA Froest Service.Currently there are more than 430 RNAs established nationally. Within the 15 National Forests of the Northern area, 51 RNAs have been established, and many candidate areas are listed in forest plans to be evaluated for possible designation as RNAs. During forest plan revisions, additional candidate areas to represent ecosystems not presently protected by RNAs can be identified and evaluated. Information gained from research and monitoring in RNAs, in turn, is vital in evaluating forest plans. In 1931, the Bowl RNA (White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire) was the first RNA to be established in the Northern area. Northern RNAs range in size from 3,675 acres (McCormick RNA, Ottawa National Forest, Michigan) to 17 acres (Whoopie Cat Mountain RNA, Shawnee National Forest, Illinois). Smaller RNAs tend to protect unique or special features; larger RNAs protect landscapes of several ecosystems. The total acreage protected in established RNAs is 31,318 in the region and over 1/4 million nationwide.

What do Research Natural Areas contribute?

The national network of RNAs helps protect biological diversity at the genetic, species, ecosystem, and landscape scales.

RNAs that are representative of common ecosystems in natural condition serve as baseline or reference areas. To help answer resource management questions, the baseline areas of RNAs can be compared with similar ecosystems undergoing silvicultural or other management prescriptions. In this way, RNAs make an important contribution to ecosystem management.

RNAs are managed to maintain the natural features for which they were established, and to maintain natural processes. Because of the emphasis on natural conditions, they are excellent areas for studying ecosystems or their component parts and for monitoring succession and other long-term ecological changes. Non-manipulative research and monitoring activities are encouraged in RNAs and can be compared with manipulative studies conducted in other areas.

RNAs serve as sites for low-impact educational activities.

Who manages RNAs?

The RNAs in the Northern States are administered jointly by the Eastern Region of the National Forest System and the Northern Research Station.  Both are part of the USDA Forest Service. The Regional Forester, with the concurrence of the Station Director, has the authority to establish RNAs. In consultation with Forest Supervisors and District Rangers, the Station Director approves research and monitoring activities and management plans for the RNA. However, if the RNA is located within a congressionally designated area such as a Wilderness, the Regional Forester approves these activities. The National Forest where the RNA is located has direct responsibility for day-to-day administration and management of the RNA. Thus RNAs provide opportunities for cooperation between the National Forests and Research branches of the Forest Service.

Current Program

The regional RNA program works within the framework of the National Research Natural Areas Strategy, circulated by the Chief of the Forest Service in July 1993. An effort is being made to integrate the RNA program fully with other National Forest and Research programs and planning. In particular, RNA programs are intended to highlight the contributions of RNAs to ecosystem management through the protection of biological diversity and the maintenance of ecological reference areas for the study of ecosystems. Recent program emphasis areas include:

  • Identifying and evaluating additional candidate RNAs to provide a regional system of protected natural areas that represent natural communities and ecological units within the region.
  • Monitoring long-term health of established RNAs through annual field checkups and through field sampling of ecosystem components (vegetation, flora, fauna, soils, aquatic).
  • Addressing management questions by monitoring RNAs and similar ecosystems under different management regimes.
  • Reviewing and tracking research, monitoring, and management activities proposed for RNAs to make sure they are compatible with protecting and maintaining the values for which RNAs are established.

Last Modified: August 20, 2021