The gentle roar of the 41-foot Huron Falls faded into the background as we approached the next cascade — Shawnee.
I had really been anticipating an opportunity to photograph the two-tiered Shawnee Falls. However, when we rounded the bend in the trail, my vision of the beautiful natural landscape evaporated. Near the base of the falls, someone had built three unnatural stacks of rocks, marring the scene at the edge of the bubbling water.
Last year, my daughter, her husband and I spent an October morning hiking the Falls Trail through the Glens Natural Area in Ricketts Glen State Park. Ricketts Glen is a popular northeastern park, well-known for its beautiful waterfalls.
The overcast sky provided a perfect light for photography. The autumn leaves were showing their first color, and the park’s 21 named waterfalls offered interesting photographic subjects. Unfortunately, we encountered a couple dozen additional rock piles that morning. Some were small, some large, but all of them were just graffiti to someone who enjoys nature.
This issue affects more natural areas than just Ricketts Glen. Tom Greene, Coldwater Unit Leader for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, noticed many stacks of rocks in and along Loyalsock Creek while conducting a recent fish survey at Worlds End State Park in Sullivan County. It even happens at Spring Creek Park and in the tiny stream at Fort Roberdeau, a historic site and natural area in Blair County.
The stacking of stones or building cairns — from the Gaelic for a “heap of stones” — has been a growing problem that appeared to gain popularity in the western states and moved east. In some places, people have made hundreds of piles. While a few of the carefully-balanced piles might be considered artistic, most are just stacks of stones. All of them represent a human intrusion on places where most people go to enjoy nature. The building of a cairn in a public place is more of a statement about the ego of the builder than it is about art.
National parks, such as the Great Smoky Mountains or Acadia, as well as the U.S. Forest Service, have signage instructing people not to build cairns. Although no signage yet exists in Pennsylvania state parks, the practice is against the rules — particularly in designated natural areas such as The Glens.
Rock piling violates the outdoor ethic, “Take only photographs and leave only footprints.” Stacking stones might not be quite as bad as spray-painting a boulder or carving your initials into a tree, but then again — ecologically — in a stream, it might be worse.
According to Brent McDaniel, director of marketing for the Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, stacking river rocks seriously damages the delicate river ecosystem in that park.
“And it’s not just cairns,” McDaniel said. “The same goes for moving rocks and creating dams to make chutes or pools in a stream. Salamanders like the Eastern hellbender, which can grow up to 2 feet in length, live in spaces and crevices under river rocks. These amazing creatures have been on this planet for 65 million years, but are now listed as near threatened in large part due to habitat loss.”
Some might be thinking, but it is just one little pile of stones. However, it is much more than that.
“Two years ago, when I discovered about 100 stone piles in just one place, it really drove the point home to me,” commented Ben Stone, Ricketts Glen State Park manager. “We have 400,000 to a half-million visitors in our park each year. It isn’t just one person’s impact — what if every person just moved one rock? What would the [environmental and visual] impact be if thousands of rocks were moved? It is an education issue — some people just don’t think it through.
“It is against the rules to dislodge or move rocks. In fact, all park visitors should stay on the trails and out of the streams. People come to our park to see nature — not rock towers,” Stone stated. “We discourage the practice and our rangers who patrol the trail knock them down.”
Ben Lorson, fish passage biologist for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s Habitat Division, details the negative ecological effects.
“A stream’s bottom — the substrate — has its own micro-habitats. The substrate provides the base of the aquatic food chain — from algae to macro-invertebrates all the way up to game fish. The surfaces of the rocks and the cracks and crevices between them are very important as habitat,” Lorson explained.
“Because of my job, I usually think of moving stream rocks with respect to building dams, but any large-scale or repeated disturbance of the stream substrate, including stone-stacking, would have a significant impact on the food chain.”
Rachel Reese, resource management supervisor for Pennsylvania State Parks, noted that — fortunately — she has not seen that same level of disturbance at all state parks.
“In general, we strive to conceal the hand of man, attempting to make our buildings and trails blend into the environment in keeping with the site. Park visitors building rock piles goes against that,” Reese said.
If you are fascinated by piling one rock on top of another, do it in your backyard. That way, you can enjoy your “art” every day. That will not break any rules, cause any ecological damage, or bother those who appreciate nature.
As for Ricketts Glen, Stone thinks that the fad might be fading.
“I took a walk on the trail yesterday and only found one rock pile. I think that we have turned the corner from what I saw two summers ago. I have had fewer recent reports from our rangers,” he noted. “The Glens Natural Area is a beautiful resource. We would like to preserve it in a natural state for this generation and for generations to come.”
Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com.