The New Graffiti: National Parks Fight Stone Stackers

Hikers argue that building cairns gives them a chance to meditate. Biologists say that digging up rocks from the ground and creeks disturbs habitat for wildlife.

A head-high cairn marks the entrance to a campsite in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. (Photo: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Aug 25, 2016· 3 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Does a stack of rocks in the forest amount to little more than a hill of beans, or do small actions like picking up stones add up to a mountainous impact?

That debate comes as the National Park Service on Thursday celebrated its 100th anniversary. This week Utah’s Zion National Park shared a photo on Facebook of a shoreline littered with dozens of human-made stacks of rocks, often called cairns. Zion, on the other hand, called these stacks “rock graffiti” and “vandalism.” The park added that the rocks can have an ecological impact far beyond what many visitors realize.

The post generated thousands of comments. Some people supported Zion’s stance, while many others denounced it. “I stack rocks in nature as a form of meditation,” one commenter wrote. “It brings me a sense of balance, focus and quiet accomplishment.”

Cairns got their start as official trail markers, but the practice of park visitors creating them has been growing in the past few decades as people have embraced it as a spiritual practice. “It definitely seems to be on the rise,” said Cassie Waters, a wildlife biologist at Zion National Park. “We see more and more of them. I don’t think they have a place in the park any more than the graffiti we see carved into the rocks.”

Thousands of rocks are stacked at Yosemite National Park. (Photo: National Parks Service)

Zion is hardly alone. “If you look in places like the Southwest, Zion being one of them, it’s just hundreds of cairns everywhere,” said Wesley Trimble, communications manager for the American Hiking Society, which supports the “leave no trace behind” philosophy of enjoying nature. “It really is detracting from the natural beauty of the place to see all these man-made cairns in an otherwise untouched environment.”

It’s not just the Southwest though. Parks around the country have reported similar problems. “We could dismantle them every day in the summer,” said Charlie Jacobi, resource specialist at Maine’s Acadia National Park. “It is especially rampant on Cadillac Mountain, which has a road to the top and 750,000 visits annually.”

Beyond disturbing natural beauty, the cairns also have an effect on the environment. Experts have said that digging rocks from the ground can promote erosion, which can in turn threaten rivers or plants. “In mountain areas, visitors often remove rocks from the soil, which disturbs habitat, and we lose the plants anchored there—and the soil too, which is already thin,” Jacobi said. “Some of these plants are rare, and this habitat is fragile for sure.”

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Removing rocks from rivers can be just as problematic. Waters said many aquatic invertebrates rely on river rocks for shelter or breeding. “If you take them out of the water, anything that’s alive on that rock and exposed is going to be killed,” she said. Salamanders or other aquatic life at other parks also rely on the rocks.

Beyond the impact on wildlife, many people worry that rock stacking creates a safety issue. Officially constructed cairns, often set out by land-management authorities, “are crucial for hikers and trail users to find the trail in different areas,” Trimble said. Adding stacks, he said, can lead people astray and put them at risk. He pointed to the high-mountain trails he enjoys in Colorado, where people have stacked rocks on “just about every flat ledge. It can be very confusing for users to navigate the intended route,” he said.

An individual rock stack may not have much of an impact, but the problem intensifies when thousands of visitors build cairns or add to existing ones. “That’s why we’re really trying to be diligent about cleaning these areas up,” Waters said. “When people see that, then of course they want to add to it, and they don’t realize that it’s not OK.”

She said she tries to take an educational approach with park visitors who see her take down cairns, but she acknowledged that doing so is not always popular. “It seems like our visitors get really disturbed by us knocking them down, because they enjoy them,” Waters said. “It’s best to use it as an educational opportunity and express that you shouldn’t be manipulating the environment.”

Waters said she understood that people find peace through the practice, although she added that it’s the same reason why many people visit national parks in the first place. “I think there is still a good percentage of our visitors who are looking for an escape from humanity,” she said. “When you see graffiti everywhere, it’s tough.”

Trimble said it’s important for all hikers and park visitors to respect the land and the people who will visit after them. “Small impacts really escalate into major impacts,” he said. “It’s something that trail users as a whole should really be aware of and really see the consequence of these impacts.”