The Environmental Impact of Cairn Making

Cairn, which is the Scottish Gaelic for stone man, can conjure up images of faith and motivation, of the spiritual journey. In the backcountry, cairn making is a popular pastime and it’s easy to understand why people feel drawn to these sweet little stacks of flat rocks which are positioned like child’s building blocks. With shoulders aching and black flies buzzing through ears, hikers will examine the stones around her, and then try to select one that has just the right mix of tilt and flatness as well as breadth and depth. After a few misses (one too large, another too small), a purist will select the stone which is perfect to fit. The second layer of the Cairn is now completed.

What many don’t realize is that cairn building can have an adverse environmental impact, particularly when it is done near water sources. When rocks are removed from the shores of a river, lake or pond, they can disrupt the ecosystem and cause destruction of the microorganisms’ habitats that provide the food chain. These rocks can also be swept away from the edge of a pond, river or lake by erosion, and end up in areas where they may harm humans or wildlife.

Cairns should not be constructed in areas with rare or endangered reptiles, mammals, amphibians, or flowers or in areas where the moisture is buried beneath the rocks. If you construct the cairn on private property, it may violate state and federal regulations protecting the natural resources of the land and may result in fines or even arrest.

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