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Minnesota Scientific and Natural Areas (SNAs)

The Scientific and Natural Areas Program protects natural features and rare resources of exceptional scientific and educational value. Sites encompass undisturbed plant communities, rare and endangered species habitat, seasonal habitat for bird concentrations, natural geologic formations, and plant communities undergoing natural succession.

The system of natural areas was created to preserve and perpetuate the ecological diversity of Minnesota for scientific study and public edification. The Program's long-range goal is to protect at least:

  • Five locations of plant communities known to occur in each landscape region
  • Three locations per region of each rare species, plant or animal, and geological feature

The numerous sites in the program represent a substantial fraction of the natural diversity of Minnesota. Sites are arrayed along an ecological gradient from native prairie to savanna/brushland to deciduous forest to wetlands to coniferous-boreal forest, and include a number of large peatland areas as well. They range in size from a 3.5-acre heron rookery to an 87,580-acre peatland.

An overview of each site can be found online. These web pages include a brief overview of the site’s attributes, a map and directions, and other details particular to the site. Species lists for many sites are also found here.

Additional site-specific information may be found in the site’s Ecological Evaluation/Project Evaluation, which is conducted before a site is accepted into the SNA program. These are not available online.

Many SNAs have volunteer site stewards. Some stewards monitor, collect data, and are involved in management activities but most maintain observation and reporting duties. Stewards may visit monthly to quarterly, with a variable schedule depending on season. 

Land Management

Because many SNAs contain remnants of natural habitat surrounded by highly altered landscapes, they often lack some of the natural processes necessary for their long-term survival. Therefore, there is often a need to replace or supplement natural processes with ongoing management activities such as:

  • Prescribed fire to restore natural processes on grasslands and fire-dependent forests
  • Treatment of erosion, invasive species, and other disturbances
  • Protection and enhancement of habitat for rare species and natural communities
  • Reconstruction of native plant communities to simulate pre-settlement condition

Management plans and management briefs detail the special needs of rare species and communities, identify disturbances, recommend protection measures, and consider public uses of the site. These items are outlined in either management plans or 2-3 page management briefs, which state general management objectives. Site specific management activities are tracked in an Adaptive Management Spatial Database (AMSD), which contains where and when management actions occur (e.g., a map of the extent of a prescribed burn). Management plans and AMSD are not available online.

Facilities                                                                                                                                                                    

Anyone is invited to visit Scientific and Natural Areas (SNAs) throughout the year. Most sites are open anytime, and no permit is required for visitation or observation. Most SNAs are accessible by road, but some may require a boat or a significant hike. Because SNAs are intended to give visitors the opportunity to experience undisturbed natural conditions, signs and parking may or may not exist at individual sites. Most SNA's do not have trails or other facilities and none have restrooms. Some sites have interpretive kiosks to introduce key features of a site.

Data Sets in Support of Research

Some species locational data is not public information. For more details or to obtain data see the Natural Heritage Information System.

Education and Outreach Opportunities

SNAs provide unique opportunities for education and reflection. Students young and old learn about ecological processes in natural communities. Scientific and Natural Areas serve as an interpretive resource by:

  • Encouraging use of sites as outdoor classrooms
  • Providing interpretive information on site features
  • Promoting appropriate public use

The SNA Program encourages the participation of the public in “citizen science,” including service as site stewards, volunteers helping with management projects, research studies, and interpretive events.

Volunteer information and events calendar

Research Opportunities

Though the SNA Program gives priority to research that monitors the effects of management practices on natural areas, without causing harm to existing species and habitats, proposals for all research receive careful consideration.

Projects may include:

  • Monitoring the effects of management practices such as burning
  • Following system recovery from natural catastrophic events such as blow-downs, floods, fires, etc. 
  • Assessing a site for naturally occurring levels of contaminants
  • Surveying plant or animal populations as baseline data for measuring the effects of environmental change
  • Determining special habitat requirements for rare species
  • Studying natural processes such as carbon cycling, pollination, or global climate change
  • Observing the behavior or studying the genetics of rare species
  • Mapping plant and animal species, and other natural features occurrences.
  • Anything that increases our understanding of natural systems

Active management on some sites may provide opportunities for experimental manipulations to address specific ecological research questions. Evaluation of the appropriateness of any experimental manipulation is site-specific, and may be permitted in areas that have already received some level of disturbance. At some sites fencing for enclosures or exclosures is possible, and some SNAs have these in place.

Because of the wide geographical extent of the SNAs, consideration should be given to development of research or monitoring networks that included multiple sites. Additionally, multiple dispersed sites may be connected to a hub based on existing field stations, such as the College’s Itasca Biological Station and Laboratory and Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve.

As over 70% of the total SNA acreage consists of peatlands, the SNA Program provides an excellent opportunity to study these critical ecosystems, particularly their ecology under changing climate, which is little understood.

Application Process

Information and application can be found online.

Applications must include and describe:

  • Background, objectives, methods, and procedures
  • A date for completion of fieldwork
  • Methods of collecting, marking, handling and final outcome of any resources collected
  • Probable impact on the study subject(s) and the surrounding habitat
  • Description of handling methods and disposition of collected specimens and other materials.

Submit a completed application to:

Mark Cleveland, Statewide Management Coordinator
mark.cleveland@state.mn.us
(651) 259- 5094

The program evaluates over 50 research applications per year. Some are annual renewals of ongoing research projects. New projects may have a two to four week turnaround time. Observation-only data collection, such as a breeding bird survey, does not require a permit.

Research permits are for a calendar year; annual renewals must be requested. Renewals are only approved after submitting an interim or final report to the SNA Program. As a general rule, researchers must deposit collected specimens in an SNA-approved, Minnesota public institution. A project report of findings must be submitted to the SNA Program no later than two years after completion of the project.

In most circumstances, working with state listed species requires an additional permit.

Some SNAs are owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy. For these SNAs, research applications are submitted to The Nature Conservancy. Contact Meredith Cornett, mcornett@tnc.org and Jana Pastika, jpastika@tnc.org for details.

Funding Opportunities

The Scientific and Natural Areas Program does not fund research or educational use of SNAs. However, other funding opportunities may be available through the following sources: