What is the future of NRM? Public, private and ‘third’ sector

Agricultural productivity in Australia is stagnating and the social fabric of rural communities is in decline (Hunt et al 2012). Coupled with widespread land degradation and a changing climate, it is critical that we manage our natural resources sustainably. Natural resource management (NRM) aims to address these issues. Specifically, it seeks to ‘redress the decline in the health of Australia’s landscapes, protect its national environmental assets, facilitate sustainable and productive natural resource management and use, support viable rural communities and better engage with Indigenous Australians in these actions’ (Australian Government 2015).

Over the last three decades there has been a gradual withdrawal of government investment in NRM in NSW (Griffith 2009). However quantifying this decline is somewhat problematic because of the many restructures to government agencies and funding streams over the years. Through this research project I am seeking to document the number of personnel actually employed in public NRM bodies in NSW since the Catchment Management Authorities (CMAs) were introduced in 2003 to date. I’m expecting to find a significant reduction in personnel since the recent amalgamation of CMAs into Local Land Services (LLS). Anecdotally I’ve been told there are as few as a quarter of the original number of extension staff employed by the CMAs in LLS.

If this is true, what will the future of NRM in NSW look like? Who will fill the gap left by government? Through the research process I have identified three main groups of actors in the NRM space – public (government), private (commercial, for-profit) and what Dibden & Cocklin (2005) have termed the ‘third sector’, referring to non-government, non-profit organisations. Each of these groups has distinct motivations that shape the way they function in the NRM space. For instance, government is motivated to maximise public benefit, while the private sector is interested in private benefits. Arguably, the ‘third sector’ sits somewhere in between the two, often motivated by more altruistic outcomes and sustainability.

I’m interested in how these motivations interact and align with the public-private benefits framework developed by Pannell (2008). Pannell’s framework offers a useful logic for making decisions about public funding – indeed it formed the basis of the Investment Framework for Environmental Resources that has been used by the Australian Government to determine investments in NRM projects in recent years. But can it also extend to private and third sector entities? Is it possible to overlay these two sectors to arrive at an optimal methodology for investment in NRM across the public-private-third spectrum?

I’m also interested in the scale at which these different sectors are operating. Research shows that government is increasingly moving away from one-on-one advisory services towards regional models of service delivery. In turn, the private sector is picking up some of these individual consultative services, though also engaging very much at an industry-level. While the ‘third sector’ is driving the many grassroots communities of practice and networks that now occupy a significant place in the NRM space. Nonetheless there is significant cross-over between the three sectors.

This leads me to wonder what is the optimal relationship to deliver sustainable NRM – are there successful models of the public, private and third sectors working effectively together in the rural landscape? Because as much as I’m trying to document the history and present state of NRM in NSW in order to understand what the future state might look like, I also want to offer some commentary on what the future state should look like if we are to enhance the sustainability of farming practices and address the challenges noted above – namely, stagnating agricultural productivity, declining rural livelihoods, environmental degradation and climate change.

Beyond drawing on the findings of my research to scope these questions, I want to elicit some informed commentary from a select few individuals actively engaged in the NRM space. I’m hoping this will allow for a more balanced analysis of the issues and validate (or challenge!) my own conclusions.


Australian Government 2015, What is natural resource management?, National Landcare Programme, accessed 20 March 2015 <http://www.nrm.gov.au/news-and-resources/resources/natural-resource-management&gt;

Dibden, J & Cocklin C 2005, ‘Chapter 1: Introduction’, in Cocklin, C & Dibden J (eds.), Sustainability and Change in Rural Australia’, UNSW Press, Sydney.

Griffith, R 2009, NRM Models and frameworks: advantages and pitfalls, commissioned research prepared for Natural Resources Commission NSW.

Hunt, W, Birch, C Coutts, J & Vanclay, F 2012, ‘The many turnings of agricultural extension in Australia’, Journal of Agricultural Education and Extension, vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 9-26.

Pannell, D J 2008, “Public benefits, private benefits, and policy mechanism choice for land-use change for environmental benefits”, Land Economics, vol. 84, pp. 225-240.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Alex Baumber says:

    Good points Emma. The decline in agricultural extension services poses a serious risk that land management practices with good evidence behind them simply won’t make it through to landholders, especially practices that are more about conservation or other public good outcomes that the private sector won’t see as profitable. But it also creates an opportunity for your “third sector” to step in with some innovative approaches to sharing information – and maybe even make the old model of government-funded extension officers seem obsolete. My fear, however, is that the funding has been cut without a clear idea of what could or should replace it…

    1. emmanorrie says:

      Hi Alex,

      I share your fear – the funding cuts are potentially so significant that there will be a void in that space for some time to come.

      The ‘third sector’ may take on a greater role in knowledge-brokering , though they seem to be somewhat limited in funding and resources. After reading Mitchell Jones’ thesis on the status of extension in the Central West, he seemed to hope that there could be more direct interaction between research organisations and farmers themselves through research projects such as his. I would have thought universities would be interested in extending the application of their research in this way – is this something you are observing?


  2. Alex Auhl says:

    Hi Emma,

    I enjoyed reading your blog, as I know very little about NRM.

    Your point – “This leads me to wonder what is the optimal relationship to deliver sustainable NRM – are there successful models of the public, private and third sectors working effectively together in the rural landscape?” – also had me wondering about successful models and frameworks.

    The literature on “wicked environmental problems” helps address the complexity and uncertainty that NRM questions pose and problems which you listed in your blog – stagnating agricultural productivity, declining rural livelihoods, environmental degradation and climate change. I wonder if this literature may be useful for your research.

    Excited to read your third blog!


    1. emmanorrie says:

      Hi Alexandra,

      Wicked indeed! Even putting aside environmental problems, the social and cultural values attached to rural landscapes are very complex. Whether these values are recognised by the market remains the question… I’ll look to some literature on wicked environmental problems for insight – thanks for the tip!


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