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The Environmental Impact of Cairn Making

The word cairn, from the Scottish Gaelic for stone man can invoke images of faith and the purpose of the spiritual journey. Cairn building is a very popular activity in the backcountry. It’s easy to understand why people are drawn to these little piles of flat stones that are stacked like blocks for children. A hiker suffering from stiff shoulders and black flies buzzing around her ears will try to choose a rock that has the perfect mix of flatness as well as tilt, width and depth. After a few near misses (one that’s too large, another that’s too small) the truest will choose the one that sets perfectly in place, and the next layer of the cairn becomes complete.

Many people are unaware that cairn construction can cause environmental harm, especially when done near water sources. When rocks are removed from the edges of a pond or lake, it degrades the ecosystem and destroys the habitat of microorganisms that feed the food chain. In addition these rocks can be carried away due to erosion and transported to places that could pose a threat to humans or wildlife.

Cairn construction should be avoided in areas that are home to rare or endangered reptiles, mammals amphibians, reptiles, or flowers or in areas where the moisture is trapped beneath the rocks. And if you build your cairn link in private land it could violate the federal and state laws protecting the land’s natural resources and may result in fines or even arrest.

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