The word”cairn” is derived from the Scottish Gaelic meaning stone man. It can conjure images of purpose, faith, and the spiritual journey. In the backcountry, making cairns is a popular trend 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. A hiker with sore shoulders and black insects buzzing around her ears will attempt to select a stone with the perfect blend of flatness width, tilt, and depth. After a few close calls (one that’s too wide, another that’s too small) the truest will pick the one that sets perfectly in place, and the second layer of the cairn becomes complete.

But what people do not 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 edges of a pond or lake, it disturbs the ecosystem and destroys the habitat of microorganisms that are essential to the food chain. Additionally, these rocks may be carried away by erosion to locations in which they could cause harm to humans or wildlife.

Cairns should not be built in areas that contain rare or endangered reptiles, mammals amphibians, plants, or other species or in areas where the moisture is trapped beneath the rocks. If you build a stone cairn on private land, it could be in violation of federal or state laws protecting the natural resources of the land. This could result in fines or even arrest.