The Environmental Impact of Cairn Making

Cairn, which is the Scottish Gaelic for stone man can bring up images of faith and the purpose of an enlightened journey. Cairn construction is a popular activity in the backcountry. It’s easy to comprehend why people are drawn to these small piles of flat stones that can be stacked like children’s blocks. A hiker who is suffering from aching shoulders and black insects buzzing around her ears will try to pick a stone that has the right mix of flatness, tilt, width and depth. After a few near misses (one that’s too wide and another that’s too small) the truest will select the one that sets perfectly in place, and the subsequent layer of the cairn will be complete.

But what many people 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 a pond, river or lake, it disturbs the ecosystem and degrades the habitat of microorganisms which support the entire food chain. In addition the rocks could be carried away by erosion to places that could pose a threat to humans or wildlife.

Cairns should not be built in areas that are home to rare or endangered mammals, reptiles amphibians, reptiles, or flowers or where the moisture is locked under the rocks. If you build a rock cairn on private land, this may violate federal and state laws that protect the natural assets of the land. This could result in fines and even arrest.