07/25/2011 03:05 pm ET | Updated Sep 24, 2011

Beetle Kill Trees Overwhelm Colorado Forests, Lumber Mills Unable To Respond

What would you do with more than 150,000 piles of dead trees? The Forest Service Is struggling with that exact question as federal contractors beef up their removal of beetle-kill trees in Colorado, reports the Denver Post.

The mountain pine beetle has already killed in excess of 1.5 million acres in the state, comprising more than 70% of the region's lodgepole pines. Newsweek estimates the beetle will leave Colorado with a deforested area about the size of Rhode Island, and while removal efforts have been upped to decrease fire and other dangers, this has led to a surplus of wood in the state.

Officials have weighed burning the trees (too much smoke), grinding them into chips (expensive), and leaving them to rot (unsightly).

Those hoping to convert the trees to lumber also face a battle: Colorado's already financially burdened sawmills lose money extracting the trees because of antiquated contracts with the Forest Service and Department of Agriculture.

Senator Mark Udall recently protested the contracts in a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, explaining that

Without these processing locations in Colorado, the distance to the next closest mill with capacity to process any meaningful volumes of timber is nearly 800 miles away in Montana. On behalf of Colorado's struggling timber industry, I ask that you take every action within your power to provide relief for these mills and preserve these critical local jobs. I appreciate the role the market must play in timber sales, but at this juncture in Colorado we must maintain an infrastructure to safely and economically dispose of our surplus of dead timber.

Vail, Colorado, attempted to build a biomass power plant that would extract energy from gasifying beetle-kill pine trees, but could not secure funding from the Department of Energy.