Cairns, the word that comes from the Scottish Gaelic for stone man, can conjure up images of faith and motivation, of the spiritual journey. In the backcountry, cairn making is something of a fad and it’s not difficult to understand why people are attracted to these adorable stacks of flat rocks that are balanced like child’s building blocks. A hiker with sore shoulders and black fly flies buzzing in her ears will attempt to select a stone that has the right mix of flatness, tilt, width and depth. After a few near-misses (one too large, another too small) An experienced person will select the stone which is perfect to fit. The second layer of the Cairn is complete.
However, what a lot of people don’t realize is that cairn-making can have a negative environmental impact, especially when it is done near water sources. When rocks are removed from the edge of a pond or lake, it disturbs the ecosystem and ruins the habitat of microorganisms which support the entire food chain. Additionally these rocks can be transported by erosion to locations where they could inflict harm on humans or wildlife.
For these reasons, the practice of building cairns is not recommended in areas that have endangered or rare mammals, amphibians or reptiles or plants and flowers that need water that is trapped under 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.