08/05/2011 12:54 pm ET Updated Oct 05, 2011

U.S. Forest Service Canceling Timber Sale Contracts To Keep Sawmills Afloat For Pine Beetle Deluge

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.

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.

The U.S. Forest Service announced Thursday that a number of sawmills throughout the West could cancel their existing timber-sale contracts with the agency. The unusual move allows Colorado's three remaining sawmills to stay in business and process beetle-kill trees. All three sawmills were financially troubled by downturns in the construction industry, reports the Denver Post.

Senator Mark Udall recently argued for cancellation of 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.

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.

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.