The Research Natural Area designation is employed by a number of federal land management agencies including the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and National Park Service. Of all the federal land management agencies, the Forest Service has been the most active in designating RNAs in recent years. The Forest Service RNA system was initiated in 1927 with the establishment of the Santa Catalina RNA on the Coronado National Forest in Arizona. In 1977, "A Directory of Research Natural Areas on Federal Lands of the United States" was published and describes an established network of 389 areas encompassing over 4 million acres of federal lands in 46 states and one territory. At this time, 122 of these RNAs were on National Forest System land. Today, the network of Forest Service RNAs has grown to over 430 areas and 500,000 acres.
The RNA system is envisioned to preserve a representative array of all significant natural ecosystems and their inherent processes as baseline areas. Although the RNA system has expanded significantly in recent decades, there are still many ecosystem types which are not represented. It has been especially challenging to secure RNA designations in the most productive forest and rangeland ecosystems where commodity uses have been concentrated. New areas which are proposed to fulfill gaps in the RNA system are evaluated through ongoing National Forest and National Grassland Land Management Planning efforts.
The prime consideration for managing RNAs is preserving natural conditions and processes. RNAs are protected against human activities that directly or indirectly modify their ecological integrity: they may serve as controls for manipulative research elsewhere. The RMRS Station Director or the Forest Service Regional Forester (for Congressionally designated areas) are the only individuals who can approve scientific research on a Research Natural Area.
The National Forest where the RNA is located has direct responsibility for on-the-ground management activities in the RNA (granting access, maintaining gates, fencing, signage, etc.) Research, observation, and educational uses of the RNA are the responsibility of the US Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station within their 12-state territory.
The overall goal of RNA management is to maintain the full suite of ecological processes associated with the natural communities and conditions for which the RNA was designed to protect. Attention is being placed on restoration of natural processes such as fire, and control of invasive alien species which alter the composition and functioning of natural communities. Although it has been a goal to maintain natural processes such as fire in RNAs, the reality is that fire was suppressed in many of these natural areas as well as the rest of the landscape. Today, scientists and land managers are working on restoring the natural fire regime to RNAs as well as other portions of the landscape.