Forests are important havens for biodiversity. If left standing, they sequester and store carbon, and thereby help mitigate climate change. Forests supplement household incomes for a large share of rural people, perform a myriad of other ecosystem functions and contribute to national incomes. Yet forests are overexploited and degrading, threatening the products and services they supply. Sustainable use and conservation of forests is, therefore, high on national policy agendas, but it is less clear how to do so effectively and efficiently. We conducted framed field experiments (FFEs) to test, ex-ante, the impact of three possible policies for forest conservation in Zambia: community forest management (CFM), command and control (CAC), and payments for environmental services (PES). The experiments were designed to mimic how local dwellers use forests in real life. A random sample of 191 forest users drawn from four villages in Mpika and Serenje districts, the actual localities where they make forest use decisions participated in the experiments, using actual tree branches as the commodity in the task of harvesting trees. A total of 24 groups, each with eight participants played the experiments and made harvest decisions for 10 rounds. Relative to open access, PES to individuals reduced harvest by 18 percentage points while each of CAC and CFM reduced harvest rates by 6 percentage points. Communication in the CFM treatment improved cooperation and to some extent ignited non-pecuniary, prosocial and other – regarding choices among our participants. The large effects of individual pay underscores the merit in paying forest users through incentive-based schemes, provided the transaction costs of such individual payments can be kept at a reasonably low level. Free and easy-riding and uncertainty on how others will respond dampens the positive effects of group pay for forest conservation, as do externally imposed sanctions in CAC. We conclude that individual pay performs better than group pay for forest conservation. Optimal forest conservation outcomes might, however, be achieved by some combinations of CFM and individual PES. Clarifying benefit sharing mechanisms in Zambia’s community forest management and taking into account individuals’ non-pecuniary motives will be important to achieve win-win outcomes for conservation and livelihoods.