The Environmental Impact of Cairn Making

Cairn, which is the Scottish Gaelic for stone man is a symbol of faith and motivation, of a spiritual journey. Cairn construction is a popular activity in the backcountry. It’s easy to understand why people are drawn to these small piles of flat stones that are balanced like blocks for children. With shoulders hurting and black flies buzzing around ears, hikers will examine the stones around her and try to choose one that has just the right balance of tilt and flatness, breadth and depth. After a few near misses (one that’s too big or too small), the purist will choose the one that’s perfectly in place, and the next layer of the cairn is complete.

But what many people don’t know is that cairns can have a negative environmental impact, particularly when it is done near water sources. When rocks are removed from the edge the shores of a lake, river or pond, they alter the ecosystem and eliminate the habitat for microorganisms which are the backbone of the food chain. Additionally these rocks can be transported by erosion to locations where they could inflict harm on wildlife or humans.

Cairn building should be avoided in areas that contain rare or endangered reptiles, mammals amphibians, plants, or other species, or where the moisture is trapped under the rocks. If you construct your cairn in private land it could violate state and federal regulations protecting the natural resources of the land and could result in fines, or even arrest.

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