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Southern Research Station

Research Natural Areas

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USDA Forest Service

Research Natural Areas (RNAs) are areas that the Forest Service has designated to be permanently protected and maintained in natural condition. These protected natural areas include unique ecosystems or ecological features; rare or sensitive species of plants and animals and their habitat; and/or high-quality examples of widespread ecosystems.


Currently there are more than 500 RNAs established nationally. Within the 16 units of the Southern Region, there are 33 established RNAs 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 the effects of management actions.

The Black Mountain RNA (Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina) was the first RNA to be established in the Southern Region in 1933. The Southern Region’s RNAs range in size from as little as 18 acres (Guilliard Lake RNA, Francis Marion National Forest, South Carolina) up to 2,092 acres (Little Laurel Run RNA, George Washington National Forest, Virginia). Smaller RNAs tend to protect unique or special features; larger RNAs protect landscapes of several ecosystems. The total acreage protected in the Southern Region as established RNAs is 19,179 acres. Overall, US Forest Service RNAs protect over 250,000 acres.

What Do Research Natural Areas Contribute?

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.

Who Manages RNAs?

The RNAs in the Southern states are administered jointly by USDA Forest Service Southern Region (Region 8) and the Southern Research Station (SRS). The RNA in Puerto Rico is administered jointly by USDA Forest Service Southern Region (Region 8) and the International Institute of Tropical Forestry (IITF). The Regional Forester, with the concurrence of the Station Director and the Regional Research Natural Area Committee, 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 Station Director has the responsibility to establish and maintain a system for archiving data and reports from Research Natural Areas. The National Forest in which 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 Southern Regions RNA program works within the framework of the National Research Natural Areas Strategy, circulated by the Chief of the Forest Service in July 1993 (PDF; 19 KB). 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.
  • 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.