Policies must balance forest conservation’s local costs with its benefits—local to global—in terms of biodiversity, the mitigation of climate change, and other eco-services such as water quality. The trade-offs with development vary across forest locations. We argue that considering location in three ways helps to predict policy impact and improve policy choice: (i) policy impacts vary by location because baseline deforestation varies with characteristics (market distances, slopes, soils, etc.) of locations in a landscape; (ii) different mixes of political-economic pressures drive the location of different policies; and (iii) policies can trigger ‘second-order’ or ‘spillover’ effects likely to differ by location. We provide empirical evidence that suggests the importance of all three considerations, by reviewing highquality evaluations of the impact of conservation and development on forest. Impacts of well-enforced conservation rise with private clearing pressure, supporting (i). Protection types (e.g. federal/state) differ in locations and thus in impacts, supporting (ii). Differences in development process explain different signs for spillovers, supporting (iii).