Research Natural Areas

What is a Research Natural area? (RNA)

A Research Natural Area (RNA) is any tract of land or water which supports high quality examples of terrestrial or aquatic ecosystems, habitats, and populations of rare or endangered plant or animal species, or unique geological study of the features, and is managed in a way that allows natural processes to predominate, with minimal human intervention. Check for definitions below for help understanding the scope of Research Natural areas.

There are several kinds of Federal protected areas, such as:

  • Research Natural Area
  • Wilderness
  • Special Areas (botanical, geological, etc.)
  • Wild & Scenic Rivers
  • Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (BLM)
  • National Parks and Monuments
  • National Wildlife Refuges


Photo of RNA Indian Meadows. Nationally, there are 450+ designated Research Natural Areas on 175 National Forest Service lands; of which 570,000 + acres are permanently protected.   The first Research Natural Area was established on 1927 within the Coronado National Forest in Arizona. In the Northern Region, there are 104 designated RNAs, which is approx 23% of the total acerage. We have 147,000 acres of RNAs which are 14 to 22,422 acres in size. There are currently 64 designated RNAs in Montana and 22 proposed RNAs. 


What does it mean to be protected?

Our Forest Service Manual (4063.03) states that, "Unless catastrophic circumstances significantly alter the conditions for which a research natural area was originally created such that it no longer may serve that function, the designation of a research natural area shall be in perpetuity.”


Why do we do this?

One of the goals of the program is to preserve a wide spectrum of pristine areas. We want to preserve and maintain genetic diversity. Within these areas we want to protect against serious environmental disruptions. The natural areas serve as a reference for the study of succession. 

Photo of the RNA big top on the Dakota Prairie Grasslands.


Through our monitoring and research activities, we start a baseline for measuring long-term ecological changes. This, in effect, becomes a control area for comparing results from manipulative research. That way, we can monitor the effects of resource manageemnt techniques and practices. We can provide onsite and extension educational activities and materials through these studies.


RNA Designations

An established RNA has been officially designated, and the NEPA and the formal establishment has been completed. 
New areas are proposed in the Forest's Plan and/or recommended for designation by the National Forest.
Candidate areas are reviewed and recommended by the Regional RNA Committee.
Nominated areas are currently under consideration.


Some helpful definitions:

Terrestrial means pertaining to the earth, an inhabitant of the earth.
Aquatic means living or growing in or on the water.
An ecosystem is the science of the relationships between organisms and their environments.
A habitat is the area of environment in which an organism or biological population normally lives or occurs.
A geological study is about the structure of a specific region of the earth's surface features.