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Special Designations

Research Natural Areas


Research Natural Areas (RNAs) are part of a national network of sites designed to facilitate research and preserve natural features. RNAs are usually established in a typical example of an ecological community type, preferably one having been little disturbed in the past and where natural processes are not unduly impeded. The tract is set aside permanently and is managed exclusively for approved non-manipulative research; i.e., research that measures but does not alter existing conditions. An RNA in a park is designated by the NPS.

Policy and Program Objectives

The NPS Management Policies states:

    Research Natural Areas contain prime examples of natural resources and processes, including significant genetic resources, that have value for long- term observational studies or as control areas for manipulative research taking place outside the parks. Superintendents recommend areas of parks to their regional director, who is authorized to designate them as Research Natural Areas. Superintendents cooperate with other federal land managers in identifying park sites for designation, and in planning research and educational activities for this interagency program.

    Activities in Research Natural Areas generally will be restricted to non- manipulative research, education, and other activities that will not detract from an area's research values. (4.3.1)

Overall policy and management guidelines for RNAs are found in the 1977 publication, A Directory of Research Natural Areas on Federal Lands of the U.S.

Specific 1968 objectives of RNAs were:

  1. To assist in the preservation of examples of all significant natural ecosystems for comparison with those influenced by man.
  2. To provide educational and research areas for scientists to study the ecology, successional trends, and other aspects of the natural environment.
  3. To serve as gene pools and preserves for rare and endangered species of plants and animals.

The 1968 objectives were restated in 1977:

  1. Preserve a wide range of undisturbed, representative areas...or ...natural situations that have special or unique characteristics...or provide outstanding examples of geological, biological, or ecological processes of scientific interest and importance.
  2. Preserve and maintain genetic diversity.
  3. Protect against deleterious environmental disturbance.
  4. Provide student and professional education.
  5. Serve as baseline areas for measuring long-term ecological changes.
  6. Serve as control areas for comparing results from manipulative research conducted elsewhere.


The NPS Organic Act of 1916 and the NPS Omnibus Management Act of 1998 provides authority to establish RNAs.

Relationship to Other Guidance

The first guidance on research natural areas is found in A Directory of Research Natural Areas on Federal Lands of the United States of America Compiled by the Federal Committee on Research Natural Areas (1968). Also see Appendix D in A Directory of Research Natural Areas on Federal Lands of the United States of America  (USDA Forest Service Federal Committee on Ecological Reserves, 1977). In this Reference Manual, see Research Administration and Collections. Also see NPS Management Policies, Section 8, Use of the Parks.

Program Guidance

Selection Criteria  

RNAs usually should be selected from typical, preferably undisturbed, hydrogeologic (physical) and biotic community types. A map identifying landscape diversity in a park is a useful starting point. It is preferable, but not mandatory, that sites be relatively accessible. The inclusion of at least one site in each of the major hydrogeologic areas and biotic community types represented in the park is a desirable long-range goal. If possible, entire small watersheds may be selected, because they maintain interrelationships of terrestrial and aquatic systems, are particularly valuable as baseline areas for research and monitoring, and are easier to delineate and protect on the ground. A rule of thumb is 100 to 10,000 acres. Existing sites used for long-term ecological monitoring can be considered for RNA designation. Areas that may be affected by future park development should be avoided.

The choice of areas to designate is best made from a list of candidate areas identified during a survey of potential sites conducted by an interdisciplinary team of scientists and resource specialists. The team should represent in-house or other expertise in disciplines such as plant ecology, wildlife biology, and geomorphology. Wherever possible, identification of candidate sites should be made in cooperation with other land managing agencies in the same biogeographical region and should represent ecological conditions needed to make the RNA network more complete. Sites selected should be classified according to the ecological or other schemes provided in the 1977 RNA Directory.

Designation Procedure

During the development of a park general management plan or the design of a park monitoring program would be appropriate times to consider designating a RNA.

The superintendent completes a Form 10-229, Natural Area Information with an accompanying topographic map showing the boundaries of the RNA and cover type map, if available. In addition to information required on the 10-229, the following should also be described:

  1. historical background and uses, including major research projects;
  2. information concerning other special designations in the proposed areas, such as Wilderness, Wild and Scenic River, or others;
  3. inclusion of the RNA in park plans or management documents;
  4. objectives in establishing the RNA and its suitability for fulfilling those objectives;
  5. description of how the area fills a gap or otherwise supplements the existing RNA network;
  6. endangered, threatened, rare, or endemic species in the proposed area;
  7. a description of the RNA boundary, including bearings and distances for any portion not sharply defined by topography;
  8. any cultural resources in the proposed RNA; and
  9. the title of person(s) responsible for coordinating research in the RNA and for maintaining the area's research data file.

The Form 10-229 and accompanying materials are transmitted to the regional director for approval and then sent to the Washington Office for review. Any site that qualifies is submitted through the Associate Director, Natural Resources, Stewardship and Science, to the Director for approval. Approved sites are identified in subsequent park general management plans and resource management plans and are added to the RNA list maintained by the Associate Director, Natural Resource Stewardship and Science, Washing­ton Office. Designation should be considered a permanent or long-term action that precludes nonconforming uses of the site. The usefulness of the designation is best realized when the RNA is maintained for decades.

Relationship to NPS Planning

Each designated RNA should be recognized in the park's general management plan, along with appropriate research objectives.

Relationship to Other Designations

RNAs can be designated in Wilderness Areas but then must be managed according to wilderness management policy.


Baseline inventory and long-term ecological observations should be the focus in Research Natural Areas, as their foremost purpose is to create an ecological/environmental information benchmark over time. Information and data from the site should be available in the park or at an associated university for potential access by scientists. Temporary, semi-permanent, or permanent research structures or facilities are permitted if there is no practical alternative for achieving research goals, and where consistent with the NPS general management plan and other park documents. Resource use should be managed to prevent any activity that could lessen the site's integrity or permit interference with ongoing research projects. Consequently, camping, trail construction (except to provide essential access), vegetation management, range and pasture use, or mineral entry are not allowed. In some cases, it may be appropriate to exclude all uses except non­manipulative research. The site should be identified both narratively and on maps in the park's general management plan. To discourage inappropriate uses, the superintendent may provide on-ground posting or fencing. Unless mitigating action is required under NPS policy or to meet the purposes of the RNA, catastrophic natural events, such as insect infestations, fire, and climatological phenomena should be allowed to take their course. Other guidelines on management can be found in the 1977 RNA Directory. In order to provide scientists with a permanent tract on which there will be minimal interference during the conduct of research, interpretation may or may not be appropriate. If appropriate, interpretation will be provided primarily off-site, except in cases where well-supervised on-site interpretation of ongoing research is possible. The existence of RNAs should be made known to scientists. Publications on research conducted in an RNA might reference the RNA, and the park should maintain a record of research done in each RNA. Any potentially disruptive recreational pursuits should not be allowed in these tracts because of the likelihood of negative effects on the ongoing research activity. Development is not permissible with the exception of essential temporary, semi-permanent, or permanent research structures, utilities, and facilities that are in keeping with park planning objectives.

RNAs may be used to accommodate some identified park research needs where feasible, and funding for research projects in RNAs may receive some priority, especially to meet the need for long-term research. A Scientific Research and Collecting Permit and an Investigator's Annual Report form need to be completed, preferably with reference to the RNA.

Roles and Responsibilities

The Washington Office, through the Associate Director, Natural Resource Stewardship and Science, coordinates the overall RNA activity in the NPS by maintaining master files on existing sites throughout the National Park System; updating the RNA Directory as required; providing NPS representation for interagency activities; and providing policy insight. Interagency transfer of information is encouraged.          

The superintendent is responsible for preparing proposals to establish new RNAs and approving activities conducted in RNAs. The superintendent should assign park staff to coordinate park research, issue collecting permits, and maintain RNA research data files.

Special Designations Table of Contents | RM#77 Table of Contents
update on 02/05/2004  I   http://nature.nps.gov/rm77/specialdesignations/RNA.cfm   I  Email: Contact Us
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