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 motive, of spiritual journeys. Cairn-building is a common activity in the backcountry. It’s easy to see why people are drawn by these small piles of flat stones that are balanced like children’s blocks. A hiker suffering from stiff shoulders and black insects buzzing around her ears will attempt to choose a rock with the perfect blend of flatness wide, tilt, width, and depth. After a few near-misses (one too big, one too small) An experienced person will select the one which is perfect to fit. The second layer of the Cairn is complete.

What many don’t realize is that cairn making can have an adverse environmental impact, especially when it’s done near water sources. When rocks are removed from the edges of an ocean, a lake or pond, they disturb the ecosystem and degrade the microorganisms’ habitats that help to support the entire food chain. Additionally the rocks could be transported through erosion to areas in which they could cause harm to wildlife or humans.

Cairns should not be constructed in areas that are home to rare or endangered mammals, reptiles, amphibians, or flowers or where the moisture is trapped under the rocks. If you build a rock cairn on private land it could violate federal and state regulations protecting the natural assets of the land. This could cause fines or even arrest.

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