The U.S. Forest Service admitted today to making a "serious" mistake that allowed 17 acres to be logged inside a rare tree reserve as part of the salvage harvest of timber burned by the 2003 Biscuit fire.

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GRANTS PASS, Ore. — The U.S. Forest Service admitted today to making a “serious” mistake that allowed 17 acres to be logged inside a rare tree reserve as part of the salvage harvest of timber burned by the 2003 Biscuit fire.

The logging inside the 350-acre Babyfoot Lake Botanical Area, created in 1966 to protect Brewer spruce and other rare plant species on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, was discovered last week by the Siskiyou Project, a local environmental group, after the Fiddler timber sale was harvested and a forest closure intended to keep out protesters was lifted.

Forest Service personnel mismarked the border of a unit of the Fiddler timber sale next to the botanical area — though just who did it or how it happened was not immediately clear, said Illinois Valley District Ranger Pam Bode. Normally trees are marked with stapled tags and paint to show the boundaries of timber sales and reserves within them.

“It is the Forest Service’s intent to manage the Babyfoot Lake Botanical Area to minimize human intervention in the ecological process,” said Bode. “For us to have changed the ecology in that area through removal of these dead trees is a serious error. And we will do all we can to determine the best path to move forward from here.”

Barbara Ullian, conservation director of the Siskiyou Project, called for a formal investigation into the blunder, saying it pointed out the importance of allowing the public to watch over logging operations on national forests.

“This is no small little slip across the border and a few trees,” said Ullian.

The Forest Service closed the area to the public last March following attempts by protesters to block logging roads and sit in trees.

“The big picture we’ve seen is that the Forest Service has done a poor job of marking and monitoring many of its sales,” said Forest Fleischman, a policy advocate for Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, which won a court order forcing the Forest Service to use its own personnel, rather than loggers, to mark trees left for wildlife on the Fiddler sale.

Spokeswoman Patty Burel said the Forest Service would look into the problem, but any issues regarding employee performance would remain confidential.

“There is a real difference in the Forest Service between performance problems and misconduct,” said Bode. “At this point I don’t have any information that would lead me to think there was misconduct. This would have been a performance error.”

Siskiyou Project counted 290 stumps inside the botanical area, including one that measured three feet in diameter that was 234 years old, said Ullian.

There was nothing left after the logging to indicate the boundary had been marked, but it could be clearly recognized from a map because it ran across the top of a ridge and included part of a road, Ullian said. A new logging road was bulldozed along the ridgetop.

The written plan for harvesting timber burned by the Biscuit fire specifically says there will be no logging inside botanical areas, she added. The loss of the shade from the standing dead trees and logging operations on the ground will make survival tougher for the Brewer’s spruce seedlings that sprouted in the area before the logging.

Ullian said the logging appears to extend down the slope into the riparian reserve of a creek inside the botanical area.

Bode said the Forest Service has disagreed with Siskiyou Project over what places qualify for riparian reserves, but would review the site.

A lightning storm July 13, 2002, sparked four fires in the rugged Klamath Mountains of southwestern Oregon. The blazes combined into the Biscuit fire, which threatened 17,000 people in small communities of the Illinois Valley and cost $153 million to control.

The aftermath of the fire has become the focus of an intense legal, scientific, and political battle between the Bush administration and the timber industry on one side and environmentalists on the other over logging and fire on the millions of acres of public lands that burn each year.