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Northern Research Station
11 Campus Blvd., Suite 200
Newtown Square, PA 19073
(610) 557-4017
(610) 557-4132 TTY/TDD

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Applying to use NRS Research Natural Areas

Wolf Lake Candidate RNA on Superior National Forest.   Photo by Jack Greenlee.

USDA Forest Service
Eastern Region / Northern Research Station


Research Natural Areas (RNAs) are established by the USDA Forest Service as representative examples of minimally disturbed natural ecosystems. In addition to their function as biodiversity reserves and as areas for educational activities, RNAs are for "nonmanipulative research, observation, and study" (Forest Service Manual 4063). Research- and monitoring-related objectives of RNAs include:

  1. Serve as reference areas for the study of natural ecological processes including disturbance,
  2. Serve as baseline areas for measuring long-term ecological changes,
  3. Serve as control areas for comparing results from manipulative research, and
  4. Monitor effects of resource management techniques and practices.

Appropriate Use

Although many kinds of research and monitoring are encouraged in RNAs, they are NOT meant for uses that "directly or indirectly modify ecological processes". The level of acceptable use varies by RNA, depending on the rarity of taxa, fragility or resilience of the ecosystems, the objectives of the RNA, and cumulative impacts of use. Acceptable use, especially regarding those activities that involve collections or special management activities--e.g., increment cores, soil samples, animal collections, plant voucher specimens, use of prescribed fire--will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and documented in the permitting process.

Approval of Projects

Unlike most National Forest lands, use of RNAs is administered jointly by the National Forest System (National Forests) and Forest Service Research (Research Stations). The local District Ranger has authority over access and administration, and the Station Director of the Research Station has authority to review and approve research and educational activities on RNAs. Use of RNAs across 20 eastern States must be approved by the Station Director of the Northern Research Station.

The application to conduct research is used by the Station Director to evaluate the appropriateness of the proposed activity, and to maintain records of all activities conducted in northern RNAs. The District Ranger may require a Special Use Permit as well. Activities in RNAs that are located in wilderness areas or other Congressional Designations require recommendation by the Station Director with final approval by the Regional Forester. Furthermore, activities involving threatened or endangered species require permission from the appropriate State agency or the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Applicants are encouraged to discuss their projects with the local National Forest RNA Coordinator, District Ranger, Station scientists, or the appropriate Station Field Representative before applying for a research permit.

Who should apply?

  • All researchers, Forest Service and otherwise, who want to conduct studies (research, monitoring, inventories) in an RNA.
  • All managers, Forest Service and otherwise, who want to undertake monitoring or management activities.
  • Individuals or small groups who want to make a short visit (one day or less) to an RNA, and who will not be conducting activities or collecting samples, do not need to fill out the attached application. They may contact the local National Forest District Ranger office for access information.

How to Apply?

To request an application to conduct research on a Northern Research Station / Eastern Region Research Natural Area, please contact the appropriate NRS Field Representative.

The appropriate sequence of approvals is a recommendation for approval from the District Ranger, the Forest RNA Coordinator, and the NRS Field Representative, then final approval by the Station Director. In some cases additional Station scientists may be consulted for recommendations. If the RNA is in Wilderness or other Congressionally designated area, approval is also required from the Regional Forester.  Please plan accordingly to assure your approval is in place prior to beginning work on the RNA.

Christel Kern, NRS RNA Co-Coordinator, 715-362-1123
Sue Lietz, NRS RNA Co-Coordinator, 715-362-1142

The Northern Research Station appreciates your interest in the Forest Service’s Research Natural Area system, which includes more than 430 RNAs nationwide.

Obligations of RNA Users

When work is completed all research users of RNAs are expected to file a brief summary report with the Station Field Rep and the Forest RNA coordinator. The report will included a copy of all data, and a map indicating the location where the study occurred within the RNA. This report may be in the form of a letter that outlines findings. If the research lasts more than one year, a yearly update is appreciated.

To assist the Forest Service in compiling research information from RNAs, we also require copies of any publications or reports derived from research on RNAs for our files. It is important for the Forest Service to maintain cumulative records of all research activities on RNAs. These records help insure that the values for which the RNA was designated are being maintained, as well as providing the Forest Service with research results that are important for understanding ecosystem processes, long-term ecological change, and the sustainable management of public lands. In addition, scientific publications increase the value of RNAs and the commitment made to maintain them.

It is also greatly appreciated if the user sends a digital copy of several slides of the project in progress in the RNA, to assist in a pictorial documentation of RNAs.

Plant, animal, and other specimens collected during the study will be deposited at the location suggested by the RNA user and approved by the Station Director.

Last Modified: 09/26/2016