The Environmental Impact of Cairn Making

Cairns, the word that comes from the Scottish Gaelic for stone man, can conjure up images of faith and motivation, of an enlightened journey. Cairn building is a popular activity in the backcountry. It’s easy to understand why people are drawn by these small piles of flat stones that can be stacked like blocks for children. A hiker who is suffering from aching shoulders and black insects buzzing around her ears will try to find a stone that has the perfect mix of flatness, tilt, width and depth. After a few near misses (one that’s too bulgy, another that’s too small) The solitary will select one that’s set perfectly in the spot, and then the second layer of the cairn will be complete.

But what many people don’t realize is that cairn building can have a negative environmental impact, particularly when it’s done near water sources. When rocks are removed from the edge an ocean, a lake or pond, they can disrupt the ecosystem and destroy the microorganisms’ habitats that are the backbone of the food chain. In addition the rocks could be carried away through erosion to areas where they could harm wildlife or humans.

For these reasons, the practice of constructing cairns should be avoided in areas that have endangered or rare reptiles, amphibians, or mammals or plants and flowers that need water that is trapped under the rocks. And if you build a cairn on private land, it may violate the laws of the state and federal government that protect the natural resources of the land and could result in fines, or even arrest.

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