Elephant Arch sees increase in rock cairns; Is stacking rocks OK on public lands?

Bone Wash at Elephant Arch, Washington, Utah, circa April 2020 | Photo courtesy of Jeanette Blasdell, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Leave No Trace principles aren’t just about trash.

The idea of Leave No Trace is exactly what that means – no trace. It’s not about a material’s biodegradability or it being natural. Leave No Trace means entering and exiting a place with the least impact possible so the next person may experience a place in its most natural form.

When it comes to some types of impacts, though, it may be harder to draw the distinction. These rocks were here, and they stayed. None have slipped into a pocket. The only thing that changed was how they were arranged. What once was scattered now stands as a fine tower, a little momentum.

However, rock stacks are not the same as rock cairns.

Rock cairns are stacks of rocks used by land managers in order to mark a trail.

Bone Wash at Elephant Arch, Washington, Utah, circa April 2020 | Photo courtesy of Jeanette Blasdell, St. George News

These are different from rock stacks, which are more a matter of decorative art, and thus traces of human presence – the opposite of leave no trace, and according to some St. George residents they’re beginning to take center stage.

One St. George resident Jeanette Blasdell, an equestrian who frequents the trails, told St. George News that while she does make rock cairns on occasion, she only does so to mark trails for navigation on areas of sandstone or rocks where the path is indiscernible.

About a week ago, Blasdell said there’s been so many people on the trails now, that people are building them all over. She has seen an increase specifically at Elephant Arch in the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area.

She said at one point on the trail, people have nearly built a wall of cairns across the wash.

“And then the next time, it was so extensive that I basically couldn’t even get my horse to be able to walk through – and we’re talking a very wide, wide wash,” Blasdell said. “People have had fun, but I think it’s kind of destroying the landscape and the reason we’re out there in the first place to enjoy the beauty.”

This is the first time in the six years she’s been frequenting this trail that she’s seen anything like this.

“I mean people will make cairns, I must say I even do it if I’m going to be leading a ride and there’s a couple places that are a little tricky, but you can make them a little unobtrusive,” she said. “But this was people building like crazy.”

Blasdell said she didn’t touch the ones she found.

“I kind of weaved around them and just took some pictures, but I wondered how long it would be until someone came along and knocked them all down,” she said.

According to the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics principles, there are three primary impacts of rock stacking.

The first one is ecological. Whenever a rock is removed from where its been embedded, “insects, aquatic macroinvertebrates, fish and animals can be forced from their hiding places and homes.”

The second impact has to do with erosion. Rocks help hold soils in place and can even aid in drainage. When a rock is removed from the soil or sand, it generates erosion.

The third impact is aesthetical, which is a disruption to the wilderness experience. People getting out are usually wanting to escape crowds and enjoy solitude. Rock cairns shout human.

It’s important to note that some rock cairns are placed for a reason and thus why it’s a good idea to leave what you find. There are a few ways to ethically make rock cairns, Leave No Trace suggests.

Christian Venhuizen, Bureau of Land Management Utah Color Country District spokesperson, wrote in an email to St. George News that rock cairns were designed to mark trails. In the Bureau of Land Management’s Color Country District, he said there are cairns used by the Bureau of Land Management, including some with historical significance.

“Most people who visit public lands are respectful and don’t create their own rock piles,” he said. “People concerned with cairns or other man-made piles of rock should contact the local BLM office to let them know where the rocks are and what they saw.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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