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Is Spray Lake Sawmills Putting Down The Axe?

Will West Fraser, the new BC-based owner of the local logging company, be as receptive to community needs and environmental considerations?

Spray Lakes Sawmills, one of Cochrane’s most iconic private companies, has been sold to West Fraser Timber

What does this mean for the hundreds of people employed by the sawmill?

What does it mean for the community in Cochrane that has benefited from Spray Lakes’ generosity?

aerial view of Spray Lakes Sawmill
Spray Lakes Sawmill in Cochrane | West Fraser Timber

Spray Lakes Sawmills was founded way back in 1943 in Sundre by Chester Mjolsness, who you might know for donating his massive taxidermy collection to the Sundre & District Museum. Chester’s business was initially called Mjolsness Brothers, which he operated with his brother Loyd. 

In 1954, the business moved operations to the Spray Lakes area south of Canmore, and the name changed to Spray Lake Sawmills. Over a decade later, Spray Lake Sawmills moved to a permanent mill site in Cochrane. This move began the company’s long history with the town.

The company has long supported the Cochrane community with donations, scholarships and sponsorships of community initiatives like building the Spray Lakes Sawmill Family Sports Centre.

But in September, Spray Lakes Sawmills announced that British Columbia-based West Fraser Timber would buy the company. 

After 80 years of service, the decision might not come as a surprise to some. To others, the transaction marks the end of an era. 

But little is expected to change, according to Spray Lakes. 

“We believe the transaction secures the long-term future of our operations and delivers the stability to support the continued investment in our business, in our people and the surrounding communities,” Spray Lakes Sawmills’ president, Barry Mjolsness, told the Cochrane Eagle.

Aerial view of Spray Lakes Recreation Area
Spray Lakes Sawmills Family Sports Centre | Tourism Alberta

The sawmill employs over 200 people directly but, including contractors, probably supports more than 400 families. With this in mind, the sale of the Sawmill raised concerns with some of the company’s employees. According to the company’s vice president, Ed Kulcsar, operations will continue, and employees’ jobs will be secure. 

He argued that employees are more secure than before because West Fraser Timber is a larger international company. 

But does bigger mean better?

The current operations are certified under the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) Forest Management Standard.

The company’s 2022 SFI audit claims the company performed forest regeneration activities quickly after logging. The SFI also found the company’s regenerated forests “well stocked and thriving.” Forest regeneration refers to growing back a forest by natural or artificial means. 

Lumber yard with products
Lumber products at Spray Lakes Sawmill |

After clear-cutting an area, most logging companies “restore” a forest with saplings that are non-native to the environment. For instance, fewer insect species live on and in Douglas fir trees than spruce. If Douglas fir trees replaced a forest populated by spruce trees, this could impact the availability of food for native bird species. 

However, all the trees planted by Spray Lakes Sawmills are natural and native to the forests in the area. The company claims to plant two million trees annually without using chemicals like herbicides and pesticides. 

The question is, will West Fraser Timber uphold these sustainable practices?

As with any logging operation, certified or not, Spray Lakes has faced opposition. Like when their clear-cuts intruded into wild areas beloved by outdoor enthusiasts. Or when they did not follow the rules and failed to get a federal permit to build a bridge over the Highwood River to access logging areas. 

With a smaller local family company, there is an opportunity for direct community pressure to hold them to account and create compromise. 

That’s why the sale of this local company to a giant non-Albertan forest conglomerate has many in Cochrane worried that their concerns will be ignored.

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