Australia’s network of public land and parks supports a range of environmental, social, cultural and financial benefits. Managed lands support biodiversity and healthy ecosystems which in turn benefit environmentally dependent industries, including tourism and agriculture. Public space also supports healthy and active communities. Population growth, increasing urbanisation and shifts in community preferences mean that management of public land is increasingly expected to provide and sustain a wide range of uses and values for the community. Meanwhile, budget constraints and legacy funding issues present challenges for governments who endeavour to maintain environmental assets for today and the future.

Like all public goods, public land management requires access to scarce public funding resources. This access depends on the ability of governments and other land managers to clearly demonstrate the public benefits that are derived from land management. Public land has traditionally been funded via traditional funding models, such as consolidated revenue, local council rates, levies or fee-for-service charges. However, these funding models may not be delivering enough funding or directing funds towards the right areas to achieve sustainable public land management goals. A common example is investment in new assets such as parks, with little funding to deliver ongoing operations and maintenance.

In response to this, public land managers are seeking different and innovative funding models to increase the resources available for public land management. New and innovative models do exist, for example the Middle Island Maremma Project demonstrates the potential for governments to harness novel funding models to improve public land management. Other models, such as social impact bonds and offset credits, demonstrate new ways to leverage demand for public goods into material outcomes. However, innovative models, despite their potential, may not deliver additional benefits relative to their traditional counterparts if they are not appropriate for the situation.

It is tempting to seek additional funding through new models when broad public land management goals are not being achieved. However, the source and related quantum of funding are rarely the key barriers to these goals. Public land is not homogenous in size, characteristics and values. These differences influence the management arrangements and funding models available to land managers. Characteristics include the area, geography, landscape features, accessibility, location, benefits, uses and values supported and the demand and cost of delivering them (to name a few). The unique combination of these characteristics within a land management context means that certain models will be more or less appropriate for achieving public land management outcomes.

Understanding what the community desires from the public land in question, the costs of achieving this and the barriers preventing success, helps land managers to identify the most appropriate funding models. It also ensures associated actions are targeted towards areas of greatest need. This knowledge helps land managers to select funding models that are likely to deliver the funding and outcomes required, thereby avoiding costly implementation of funding models that are likely to fail. Finally, decision makers are unlikely to approve different funding approaches and to provide new funding streams if they cannot be convinced that costs are understood and actions are targeted to defined outcomes.

Recent project experience across various governance and regulatory contexts has demonstrated how public land managers may benefit from undertaking this process. Aither recently reviewed a range of existing and potential funding models for managing Travelling Stock Reserves in New South Wales and for public open space in metropolitan Melbourne. These projects demonstrated the pros and cons of different funding models and the range of barriers to be overcome to meet public land objectives. Internationally, Aither also provided advice to the World Bank on how the Seychelles may leverage private financing to restore its coral reefs. In this work, we provided advice on the suitability of different funding models such as existing trust funds and ecosystem service payments, within the context of the local community’s preferences and capacities.

Alternative funding models have the potential to deliver benefits for public land management. However, regardless of the funding model being employed, public land managers must first have a clear and comprehensive understanding of the outcomes they want to achieve, the costs of achieving these specific outcomes, and potential implementation barriers. With the benefit of this information, public land managers will be better prepared to understand which models are most appropriate, and efficiently direct funds to maximise public benefit.