The word “cairn” comes from the Scottish Gaelic for stone man can bring up images of faith and the purpose of spiritual journeys. In the backcountry, cairn-making is something of a fad, and it’s easy to understand why people feel attracted by these sweet little piles of flat stones that are balanced as child’s building blocks. With shoulders aching and flies that are black buzzing in ears, a hiker will examine the stones around her and try to pick one that has just the right balance of flatness and tilt as well as breadth and depth. After a few missed opportunities (one too big, one too small), a purist will select the one that fits perfectly into place. The second layer of the Cairn is completed.
But what people do not realize is that cairn making can have a negative environmental impact, particularly when it is done near water sources. When rocks are removed from the edge the shores of a lake, river or pond, they disrupt the ecosystem and eliminate the microorganisms’ habitats that support the entire food-chain. In addition the rocks could be transported through erosion to areas that could pose a threat to wildlife or humans.
Cairns should not be built in areas that contain rare or endangered mammals, reptiles amphibians, plants, or other species or in areas where the moisture is trapped under the rocks. And if you build an cairn on private property it could be in violation of federal and state regulations that protect the natural resources of the land. It may result in fines or even a detention.