Research site networks

USDA Forest Service Experimental Forests & Ranges and Research Natural Areas

As an early career ecologist, securing funds for new, field-based studies can be challenging.  One strategy is to collaborate on existing studies.  This type of collaboration is cost efficient because study establishment is already completed, allowing collaboration to focus on continuing the original objectives (e.g., re-measuring) or developing new objectives (e.g., modelling from site to larger scales). Moreover, using previously established studies from multiple sites or a network is a strategic way to pursue science and uncover complex ecological relationships.  Well-known U.S. research site networks include LTER, NEON, and others. The USDA Forest Service (FS), Research and Development manages lesser-known research site networks, including the 80-plus Experimental Forests and Ranges and 430-plus Research Natural Areas (RNAs) located across the U.S.

The Experimental Forest and Ranges are considered living laboratories and are home to numerous experiments on vegetation, soils and watersheds.  Long-term silviculture experiments on Experimental Forest and Ranges have been influential in regional management, policy, and ecological model validation for decades (Lugo et al. 2009). Today, many of the early experiments continue with very detailed measurements, usually on permanent sample plots, of hydrology, forest growth, composition, and other ecological data at long and short timeframes at regional and local scales (e.g., Kenefic and Kern 2013).

RNAs are permanently protected areas that are designated to represent natural (unmanaged) conditions, unique ecological conditions, rare or sensitive plants or animals, and/or high-quality examples of widespread ecosystems.  The national network of RNAs helps protect biological diversity at the genetic, species, ecosystem, and landscape scales.  Monitoring varies by RNA from none to intensive, long-term permanent plots (e.g., Woods 2009).  Observational research on RNAs provides a national network to monitor large-scale questions, such as climate change (e.g., Massie et al. 2016).

As a FS scientist, I am well aware and involved with both research site networks.  As a government scientist, I do not have graduate students, but I have access to Experimental Forest and Ranges and RNAs as an unique resource for collaboration. So, I suggest that you contact a nearby Forest Service scientist or me about the possibilities of collaboration in your region or ecosystem of interest.  Collaborations around research site networks are win-win for participating institutions and for advancing knowledge about complex ecological phenomena that cannot be addressed with individual sites or organizations.



Kenefic, L.S. and C.C. Kern. 2013. The remarkable story of the Partial Cutting Study at the Dukes Experimental Forest. Long-term Silvicultural & Ecological Studies Results for Science and Management: Volume 2. A.E. Camp, L.C. Irland and C. Carroll, J.W. New Haven, CT, Yale University School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Global Institute of Sustainable Forestry Research Paper 013: 116-125.

Lugo, A.E., F.J. Swanson, O.R. Gonzalez, M.B. Adams, B. Palik, R.E. Thill, D.G. Brockway, C. Kern, R. Woodsmith and R. Musselman. 2006. Long-term research at the USDA Forest Service’s experimental forests and ranges. BioScience 56: 39-48.

Massie, M.H., T.M. Wilson, A.T. Morzillo and E.B. Henderson. 2016. Natural areas as a basis for assessing ecosystem vulnerability to climate change. Ecosphere 7(11): e01563.

Woods, K.D. 2009. Multi-decade, spatially explicit population studies of canopy dynamics in Michigan old-growth forests. Ecology 90:3587.


Dr. Christel Kern (cckern [at] is a research forester at the USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station in Rhinelander, WI, USA.  She is lead scientist at 5 experimental forests in Wisconsin and Michigan and co-coordinator of the 51 research natural areas in the northcentral and northeastern U.S.