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Research Natural Areas

Meadow on the Onion Park Research Natural Area, which is located within the Tenderfoot Creek Experimental Forest.
Meadow on the Onion Park Research Natural Area, which is located within the Tenderfoot Creek Experimental Forest.

The Forest Service Research Natural Areas (RNAs) network protects some of the finest examples of natural ecosystems for the purposes of scientific study and education and for maintenance of biological diversity. National Forests and Grasslands in eleven western states manage an exceptional suite of hundreds of established and proposed Research Natural Areas. These areas represent a wide variety of habitats and ecosystems along elevational gradients from alpine to lowlands; and biogeographic gradients ranging from coniferous forests of the Northern Rockies to semiarid deserts of the southwest and prairie ecosystems of the plains.

RNAs represent a valuable ecological resource for scientists, managers and educators. The Forest Service encourages scientific and educational use of Research Natural Areas. 


RNAs are permanently protected and maintained in natural conditions, for the purposes of conserving biological diversity, conducting non-manipulative research and monitoring, and fostering education. Included in this network are:

  • High quality examples of widespread ecosystems
  • Unique ecosystems or ecological features
  • Rare or sensitive species of plants and animals and their habitat

These RNAs help 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 land 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 change. 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. These areas are available for educational use by university and school groups, native plant societies, and other organizations interested in pursuing natural history and educational field trips.