The Environmental Impact of Cairn Making

Great Barrier Reef

Cairns, the word that comes from the Scottish Gaelic for stone man can bring up images of faith and motivation, of spiritual journeys. In the backcountry, cairn making is a trend and it’s not difficult to see why people are attracted by these sweet little stones which are positioned like child’s building blocks. A hiker with aching shoulders and black insects buzzing around her ears will attempt to select a stone that has the perfect mix of flatness width, tilt, and depth. After a few near-misses (one too big, one too small), a purist will choose the stone that is perfectly positioned. The second layer of the Cairn is completed.

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 edge of in a lake, river, or pond, they can disrupt the ecosystem and destroy the habitat for microorganisms which support the entire food-chain. These rocks can be removed from the edge of a pond or lake by erosion, and end up in places in which they could harm wildlife or humans.

Cairns should not be built in areas that are home to rare or endangered reptiles, mammals amphibians, reptiles, or flowers or where the water is locked under the rocks. If you build a stone cairn on private land, it could violate federal and state regulations protecting the natural resources of the land. This could result in fines and arrest.

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