The word cairn, from the Scottish Gaelic for stone man can bring up images of faith and motive, of the spiritual journey. In the backcountry, cairn making is a popular trend and it’s simple to understand why people are attracted by these sweet little stacks of flat rocks that are balanced like child’s building blocks. With shoulders aching and black flies buzzing through ears, a hiker will look over the stones in front of her and try to pick one that is just the right mix of tilt and flatness, breadth and depth. After a few close calls (one that’s too large, another that’s too small) the shrewd will select the one that’s set perfectly in the spot, and then the second layer of the cairn will be complete.
What many don’t know is that cairns can have an adverse environmental impact, particularly when it is done near water sources. When rock is removed from the edge of a pond or lake, it degrades the ecosystem and destroys the habitat of microorganisms which support the entire food chain. These rocks can also be swept away from the edges of a pond, river or lake by erosion, and end up in places where they may harm humans or wildlife.
In light of this, the practice of constructing cairns should be avoided in areas where there are endangered or rare reptiles, amphibians, or mammals or plants and flowers that need moisture that is held in the rocks. If you build a stone cairn in private land, this may violate federal and state regulations protecting the natural assets of the land. This could result in fines and arrest.