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RNAs: lands left alone.

You'll probably never visit one, but the 260 Research Natural Areas across the country are investments in our future.

Within our National Forest System--from Alaska to Puerto Rico--lie some 260 protected ecosystems. Designated as Research Natural Areas (RNAs) by the U.S. Forest Service, they may be expanses of forest, grassland, or marshland; they may encompass unique aquatic or riparian habitat or harbor rare or endangered plants and animals. Often referred to as the Forest Service's "crown jewels," these areas represent the best of both forests and rangelands.

Once designated, an RNA is permanently removed from any and all land use, with a few rare exceptions. When an RNA is designated in an area where public use was previously allowed--where there are trails, signs, and the like--the Forest Service tries to implement a "phase-out period." It lets trails fall into disuse and signs topple, returning the spots to nature. Sometimes it reroutes the trails around the RNA.

The agency monitors these areas to maintain them in a natural condition, allowing only non-manipulative research, observation, and study. RNAs are, in a sense, control groups that provide a way to track resource-management practices.

The RNA program began around March 1927 and changed little in its first 50 years, building up a stable of only 127 officially designated sites. Setting aside these special places just didn't seem all that important. But the program has ballooned in recent years with the public's increased interest in the environment. The number of RNAs has more than doubled in the past 10 years, bringing the national total to 260. An additional 450 sites are being considered, and as the importance of studying biodiversity increases, so too will the number of RNA candidates.

Although these lands are not open to public use, they offer us many benefits. They give graduate students and environmental groups places in which to study species in their natural condition, places where there has been little or no human intervention. The Nature Conservancy and the Native Plant Society are two groups that benefit greatly from using these areas, and they, in turn, help identify new candidates.

Although these lands will provide a greater understanding of ecosystems over the long term, removing them from timber production can be an expensive short-term decision. Bob Smart, district ranger in Placerville, California, says, "I hope the public will be able to take comfort in knowing these areas are being preserved."

The National Forest Management Act (NFMA) of 1976 has also done its part to push things forward. Russell Burns, RNA coordinator for the Forest Service, says, "The act tells us we have to monitor resource-management activity on national forests. How can you monitor something unless you compare it with an area that hasn't been managed?"

No longer are these areas used strictly for research; they act as benchmarks of forest health. "The more we manipulate and manage on a wide scale," explains Connie Millar, a research geneticist in Berkeley, California, "the more these little islands of unmanipulated land become absolutely essential as biodiversity conservation areas."

So how are RNAs chosen? Suggestions come from interested private citizens as well as Forest Service personnel, and RNA committees act as nerve centers, shepherding the process through its many stages. A great deal of controversy revolves around a designation, and negotiation is required by all involved. The land-use rules for these reserve lands are the strictest applied to any land in federal ownership, Millar says, admitting that the process is horrendously complex.

Conditions beyond the RNAs' borders also affect their future, requiring further cooperation and perhaps compromise. RNAs may also be established within designated wilderness areas, but even there they run the risk of being ravaged by recreational use and livestock grazing.

"They're only protected from the saw," says Millar, pointing out that even researchers can cause harm. "They can trample fragile alpine ecosystems, or take away too many endangered plants. They can research an area to death. The more we do nothing, the more value these areas will have."

Through ecological and geological surveys, common and uncommon features are identified for each area. In the beginning, the driving force behind RNAs was the preservation of specific timber types--a Douglas-fir RNA or a ponderosa-pine RNA, for example. But before long, an appreciation for the broad diversity of existing elements began to grow. Soon sedges and grasses, wetlands and prairies, and a host of other ecosystems became part of the RNA network.

Generally, the less human disturbance an area has suffered, the better its chance of becoming a Research Natural Area. Finding untouched lands today may be a pretty tall order, but selection committees strive to achieve this standard. They seek out areas that have remained undisturbed by activities such as timber cutting and livestock grazing for at least 50 years.

RNAs vary greatly in size and offer protection for a myriad of natural elements. The Pack Creek unit in Alaska's Tongass National Forest covers nearly 6,000 acres and offers protection for a myriad of natural elements. Pack Creek RNA in Alaska's Tongass Natural Forest covers nearly 6,000 acres and offers protection for brown bear along meandering salmon streams. Two Top and Big Top Mesas RNA on North Dakota's Custer National Forest comes in at a meager 14 acres, but this tiny remnant of wheat and needle grasses remains one of the last strongholds of native prairieland. It is a reminder of what once was--perhaps sufficient reason to preserve them.

One unique RNA lies in the Shawnee National Forest in Illinois. LaRue-Pine Hills/Otter Pond, named the 250th RNA, contains diverse plant and animal species. More than 1,300 types of flowering plants grow there--more than any other comparable site in the Midwest. The blue-headed shiner, a rare fish once thought extinct in Illinois, has been found there, and migratory birds use the RNA as a resting spot on their journey along the Mississippi Flyway.

Leading the nation as the first RNA with a written management plan is Station Creek in California's Eldorado National Forest. The RNA's project leader, Barry Callenberger, sees the management plan as a milestone for the program nationwide. Up until now, these areas were considered hands-off, but as a new era of wildland stewardship evolves, it's becoming more apparent that actual management may be required to preserve or bring back an area's natural elements.

Plans to introduce prescribed fire on the Station Creek unit--where fires have been extinguished for 80 years--reflect this new attitude. The intent is to restore to the area natural conditions that include periodic, low-intensity fires. A look at a devastated site just across the canyon is proof of the need for such a program. In 1981 the Wright's Lake fire burned 3,000 acres of timberland similar to Station Creek's before being contained at the ridgetop. Station Creek's management plan will be more of a "living document" that will be modified and adjusted over time.

Smart identified Station Creek as a possible RNA back in 1977 and has watched it from its genesis to its official designation in 1991. The presence of old-growth Sierran mixed-conifer forest and the fact that the area has never seen a saw made it an ideal choice. The multilayered stand is prime habitat for the California spotted owl and goshawks, both of which have been sighted within the RNA's boundaries.

Growing on its steep slopes are some big trees--sugar pines measuring seven feet in diameter are not uncommon. Despite stumpage rates of about $1 per board-foot (bf), the district has withstood pressure to log dead timber. "They'll say, 'Why don't we just move it out of there?'" says Smart. But when you stand on the banks of a chilly Sierra stream and look across at the moss-covered giants, it is indeed good to know that this place is under a watchful eye.

Opening the door between land-management folks and researchers has been one of the most positive aspects of the RNA program. This union has generated a tremendous amount of interest from people in the Forest Service who want to find out what's happening on the ground and look closer at an area's ecology. "All of a sudden, just by our dabblings in the Station Creek area, we're more involved in research than we've ever been," says Callenberger.

"It's a really neat marriage," says Millar. "We're just learning how to dance together."

Collecting baseline data is a major emphasis of the program. "We want more data collected quickly so we can track what happens in the future," Callenberger says. Since the budget for data collection is limited, volunteers from various universities are helping move the program forward.

"Even if we do nothing," Smart says, "Station Creek will be affected by pollution, by the greenhouse effect, by all the things going on in the world. At least we'll know what it was like today."

Similar programs have begun within other federal and state agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Designated RNAs also exist on lands owned or managed by the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

There are those who feel that these areas are being set aside, virtually roped off forever, with no intention of managing them. Because of the word "research," Millar says, many people think the RNAs aren't being used unless truckloads of researchers can be seen going in and out every day."

Mike Landram of the Forest Service's San Francisco office feels that there's a place for RNAs within the multiple-use concept. "We need to preserve them," he says, "if for nothing else than 'just-in-case.'"

Carrie Casey writes frequently for this magazine from her home in Foresthill, California.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Forests
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:research natural areas
Author:Casey, Carrie
Publication:American Forests
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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