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Instructing Outdoor Sports Enthusiasts in the School of Rocks

12 Dec, 2018

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Something that may interest planners of outdoor sports events, including trail runs, hiking and kayaking: national parks are reporting an uptick of vandalism – and the odd part is, most visitors don’t even realize they’re doing anything wrong.

The good news is that planners are in a position to do something about it.

The practice of stacking rocks – making small totems or cairns and then posting pictures on social media (hashtags: #RockStacks and #StoneStacking) seems at first harmless – but isn’t, according to parks officials.

In fact, noted a blog on the site, TakePart, Utah’s Zion National Park shared a photo on Facebook of a shoreline littered with dozens of human-made stacks of rocks, calling them “rock graffiti” and “vandalism.” The park added that the rocks can have an ecological impact far beyond what many visitors realize.

“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.”

The problem, say park officials, is that digging rocks from the ground can promote erosion, which can in turn threaten rivers or plants. It can also make trails unsafe for hiking.

“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,” said Charlie Jacobi, resource specialist at Maine’s Acadia National Park. “Some of these plants are rare, and this habitat is fragile for sure.”

Removing rocks from rivers can be just as problematic. According to Cassie Waters, a wildlife biologist at Zion National Park. 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.

While officials rail against the practice, some stackers clap back, saying it’s a form of meditation, or even prayer – although pulling the ‘freedom of worship’ card is a dirty trick, say park personnel, since there’s nothing actually religious about stacking. (And before anyone asks, it’s not to be confused with the Jewish practice of putting pebbles and small rocks on the gravestones of grave markers in cemeteries).

Park personnel who are seen by enthusiasts deconstructing stone stacks are often told they’re the ones who are committing vandalism. They’re also accused of being killjoys and even anti-tourism. And that, say many experts, makes everyday people (who know better) reluctant to disturb the formations. (This, after a visitor sparked international indignation on social media against a family who blatantly defaced a railing at Tumalo Falls in Oregon – on camera).

The New Yorker notes that the trend shows no sign of fading. In Acadia National Park alone, volunteers destroyed nearly 3,500 rock stacks, on just two mountains, in 2016 and 2017.

“I would probably equate the rock-stacking phenomenon with the painted-rock phenomenon, in how it’s driven by social media,” Christie Anastasia, the public affairs specialist at Acadia, said.

Painted rocks are a kind of social media treasure hunt; people leave brightly decorated rocks in parks, with their social media handles noted on the undersides. The person who finds the rock can then send a message to the person who left it. Acadia park employees have collected hundreds of those during the past year as well.

So what can event organizers do to keep athletes – and more importantly, their families who come along with them, from stacking (or painting)? A few tips from various nature experts are as follows:

Education: Probably the best defense. Start a #SchoolOfRocks. Let people know the park trails suffer when rocks are stacked. Spread the word that athletes – and even casual users – can be injured by tripping over rocks. Further, cite specific examples of how the ecosystem can suffer.

Discuss how Ugly They Are: Honestly, hundreds of stone stacks don’t enhance the environment (or anyone’s photos) and isn’t how Mother Nature sculpted things originally.

Make them Proactive: Ask people to kick over stone stacks and to collect or report painted stones. If you can create an #AntiStackPosse or a #SchoolOfRocks and ask people to report THAT on social media, you might help combat the trend.

Repeat the Message: The more you say it, the better you are at making sure people hear it, loud and clear.

Keep an Eye on Social Media Posts: If you have to hashtag #ShameOnYou or #Vandalism, that’s just a part of the school of hard rocks – er, knocks.

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