The Environmental Impact of Cairn Making

The word»cairn» is derived from the Scottish Gaelic meaning stone man. It can conjure images of faith, purpose, and an experience of spirituality. Cairn building is a popular activity in the backcountry. It’s not difficult to see why people are drawn to these tiny piles of flat stones that are stacked like children’s blocks. With shoulders aching and black flies buzzing around ears, a hiker will take a look at the stones around her and attempt to select one that is just the right amount of flatness and tilt, breadth and depth. After a few near misses (one that’s too wide, another that’s too small) the truest will choose the one that sets perfectly in place, and the next layer of the cairn is complete.

Many people are unaware that cairn building can cause environmental harm, especially when done near water sources. When rocks are removed from the shore of a river, pond or lake, it disturbs the ecosystem and destroys the habitat for microorganisms that support the entire food chain. Additionally these rocks can be carried away due to erosion and transported to places where they could inflict harm on humans or wildlife.

Cairns should not be constructed in areas with rare or endangered mammals, reptiles amphibians, reptiles, or flowers, or where the moisture is trapped under the rocks. If you build a stone cairn on private land, it could be in violation of federal and state laws that protect the natural resources of the land and result in fines and even arrest.

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