As a lawyer, Conor Barnes is keenly familiar with the long arm of the law, but right now he’s more interested in the dead hand of the law.
Barnes first heard of the "dead hand" while earning his juris doctorate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The "dead hand" refers to anyone who is no longer living but still exercises control over property by having dictated in a legal document how the property must be used after they die. Such legal stipulations pose problems for people living today.
"We have these institutions that are still implementing policies and values from 100 years ago that might have made sense then but don’t really make sense now or are even actively harming the resources that we’re trying to conserve," Barnes says.
He cites the spread of red cedars on land as an example of this. The trees were initially planted as shelterbelts in Nebraska, but they spread into grasslands and now threaten the prairie ecosystem. Numerous studies show red cedars overtake grasslands and lower livestock production; reduce the abundance of prairie insects, small mammals, and birds; and lower soil moisture and streamflow, among other problems. If a landowner from years ago has stipulated in legal documents that trees cannot be removed from a piece of property, that stipulation can harm the land and modern-day inhabitants.
"We don’t want people to have to manage land based on the wants and desires of people who might have lived 100 years ago who controlled a piece of property and wanted it to remain the exact same," Barnes says. "We want people to be able to manage property how they feel it’s necessary or how they see fit, and so, the legal theory there is that we need to be able to continuously renew the management practices of a certain piece of property."
Barnes joined the NRT to work on addressing and resolving environmental issues like the dead hand while earning his doctorate in natural resources. He is also working toward achieving an emphasis in adaptive management, the management of ecosystems in a way that fosters their resilience while adapting to change and disturbances such as climate change and weather extremes.
He says the greatest thing he has learned while part of the NRT is concepts related to ecological resilience, the ability of desirable ecosystems to sustain themselves. He says he is looking at ways to adapt the terminology of ecological resilience into the legal framework.
"Having that wording, understanding what those concepts mean is incredibly important to adequately adapt these concepts, such as adaptive management, into the legal framework," he says. "I think that historically, that’s where we have been kind of stuck, and a good chunk of my Ph.D. dissertation is going into why we haven’t really seen much progress with these ecological concepts being implemented in the law."
He is also looking into how nuisance law affects policy and management decisions and comparing water and fire management institutions with their corresponding ecological scales.
"One thing that I’ve always felt is very important is that these ecosystems don’t exist in a vacuum," Barnes says. "There are always people floating around somewhere, so we have to manage the ecosystems and how do we accomplish that? We, of course, accomplish that through policy and law."
He says after graduating he would like to secure a position in this nexus of science, policy and law and nods toward the NRT for positioning him to do so.
"Nebraska’s NRT program is one of the few that are engaged in the space that I’m really interested in, which is that nexus of science, ecology and law," Barnes says. "It’s doing things that aren’t being done a whole lot, at least not yet, on the national stage related to these concepts."