The Environmental Impact of Cairn Making

Cairns, the word that comes from the Scottish Gaelic for stone man can bring up images of faith and the purpose of a spiritual journey. Cairn-building is a common activity in the backcountry. It’s easy to see why people are drawn to these tiny piles of flat stones that can be stacked like children’s blocks. With shoulders aching and flies that are black buzzing in ears, a hiker will examine the stones around her and attempt to select one with the right mix of tilt and flatness as well as breadth and depth. After a few close misses (one that’s too wide and another that’s too small) The solitary will choose the one that is perfectly set in place, and the subsequent layer of the cairn is complete.

But what many people don’t know is that cairns can have a negative environmental impact, especially when done close to water sources. When rocks are removed from the edges of an ocean, a lake or pond, they disrupt the ecosystem and eliminate the habitat for microorganisms which support the entire food-chain. The rocks could be removed from the edge of a pond or lake due to erosion. They can end up in areas where they could inflict harm on wildlife or humans.

This is why the practice of building cairns should be discouraged in areas with endangered or rare mammals, amphibians or reptiles or plants and flowers that require the moisture that is held in the rocks. If you build a stone cairn on private land this may violate federal and state laws protecting the natural resources of the land. It could cause fines or even arrest.

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