Prevent Vandalism of Painted Cairns

Cairns are man-made rock stack landmarks, usually found on the highest point of a trail or mountain. They range from tiny piles of rocks to tall, sculptural structures. They are important landmarks for hikers in remote areas, helping them to stay on trails, and to avoid going off-trail and potentially getting lost. They are also an important part of the cultural heritage of many cultures, providing a way to mark historical sites or commemorate ancestors.

In Acadia National Park, cairn vandalism is a growing problem. Some of the cairns were painted with bright red blazes, and more than two miles of Acadia’s trails have been defaced this winter alone. It is illegal to paint a cairn or tree in the park, and the blazes deface an historic landmark that was designed by the renowned trail builder Waldron Bates in 1904.

Hikers have been building and adding stones to painting cairns for centuries, and there are thousands of them scattered across the country and around the world. But not all cairns are created equal, and the practice has gotten out of hand in some places. Rock stacks often take the form of elaborately stacked or sculptured structures that can be a challenge to hikers and a source of pride for those who climb them. Other cairns are simply decorative and do not help hikers navigate.

How to Prevent Vandalism of Painted Cairns

A Colorado-based cairn builder, Michael Grab, who goes by the moniker Gravity Glue, says that people should not build cairns for aesthetic reasons, but that doesn’t mean that he wants anyone to stop doing it. He believes that cairns provide an invaluable service and are culturally significant in the Nordic countries, where they have long been used to mark important trails and memorialize ancestors. But he acknowledges that the influx of tourists and hikers have led to a proliferation of cairns in remote locations. He suggests that people use their own cairns for these purposes, but that they should follow a leave-no-trace policy.

To reduce cairn vandalism, some parks are trying to dissuade the practice by calling it litter. Acadia National Park’s Facebook post urging hikers to “please keep your painted rocks out of your national parks” got 827 comments. Some were supportive, and others were angry.

Another possible solution is to replace frequently vandalized objects with cheaper or more durable ones. This strategy was suggested by a professor at Michigan Technological University who studied the effect of target hardening on crime rates, finding that when a target is repeatedly replaced it becomes less attractive to vandals and their motivation diminishes — a war of attrition. This type of “soft target” approach may be particularly effective for protecting cairns that are already being damaged. If a cairn is being vandalized frequently, consider painting it with a dark color that will make the tagging and graffiti less noticeable. The darker colour may also be easier to cover up, but it will not work on powder-coated fences. A professional painting company can help with this.

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