Stay or Go? Debate Rages Over Dead Trees Decimated by Pine Beetles

The Mountain Pine Beetle is tiny, about five millimeters long or about the size of a pencil eraser.

But what it lacks in size, it makes up in number.

So much so, that it has decimated 40 million acres of forest across the Western United States over the last 10 years.

To put that in perspective, if you bunched them all together, the dead trees would cover more land than the states of New York and New Jersey combined.

"It's the largest insect epidemic ever recorded in North America," explains Cal Wettstein of the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Region Bark Beetle Incident Management Organization.

Wettstein recently took Fox News on a tour of one of the more potentially dangerous areas near Dillon, Colorado, where some of the dead trees are being removed.

Workers sit inside giant tractor-like machines, using robotic arms to grasp the deceased giants and quickly slice the diameter of the pole, before picking it up and placing it in a pile of timber.

Projects such as this are occurring in almost every Western state, where the beetle has left entire mountainsides the color of rust, the hue the pine trees turn once the insects have left.

Experts say massive beetle populations are natural and cyclical. This one was allowed to explode through a combination of severe drought and warmer winters over the last decade.

"When it first started we thought we could stop it, and that was 10 to 12 years ago. And about eight years ago we realized that the situation was beyond our control," Wettstein said.

The problem now is people live closer to forested areas, and the aftermath of this infestation can be a serious danger.

"So we want to reduce the hazard's of falling trees that might impact people," explains Wettstein. "We might also want to reduce the impact of falling trees on roadways, power lines, whatever other infrastructure is out there."

Removing the trees has created some controversy.

Some groups would prefer to leave the trees alone, rather than see the federal government clear cut giant swaths of once green mountain ranges.

But officials say there is no plan to do away with every dead tree. This project in Dillon is part of a plan the U.S. Forest Service is trying. It allows private contractors to cut down and remove a few hundred acres at a time.

The only thing that will stop the march of the beetles is time.

The U.S. Forest Service says the population will collapse, but only after most of the pine trees are dead.

There is a new generation of forest beneath the surface, now being cleared in anticipation of the future.

Ken Cunning, also with the Forest Service, points to a small green Lodgepole Pine pushing its way skyward. "The silver lining is our future forest, which is starting right in front of us."

Wettstein says assuredly, "The forest is very resilient and it'll come back. And it'll all be green again one day."