The word cairn, from the Scottish Gaelic for stone man can bring up images of faith and purpose, of the spiritual journey. Cairn building is a popular activity in the backcountry. It’s easy to understand why people are drawn to these tiny piles of flat stones that can be stacked as if they were blocks for children. A hiker who is suffering from aching shoulders and black fly flies buzzing in her ears will try to select a stone that has the right mix of flatness wide, tilt, width, and depth. After a few near misses (one that’s too big and another that’s too small) the shrewd will select the one that’s perfectly in place, and the next layer of the cairn is complete.

Many people are unaware that cairn building can create negative environmental impacts 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 destroy the habitat for microorganisms which provide the food chain. They can also be swept away from the edge of a river, pond or lake by erosion and end up in areas where they could inflict harm on humans or wildlife.

Cairns should not be built in areas with rare or endangered mammals, reptiles amphibians, reptiles, or flowers or where the moisture is trapped under the rocks. And if you build an cairn on private property, it may violate the laws of the state and federal government that protect the natural resources of the land. It could result in fines, or even a detention.

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