This paper explores the dilemma of protected area buffer zone forest management, particularly in dealing with market roles that could contribute to poverty reduction. Examining Nepal’s buffer zone programme, the paper shows how the reluctance to embrace the role of markets has undermined the poverty-reduction potential of buffer zone forests. It is revealed that conservationists’ persistent fear that access to markets may ultimately lead to overexploitation has shaped the buffer zone policies that often favour subsistence over forest product trade. It is demonstrated that constrained access to markets has hit the poor who rely more on markets for their livelihoods, which limits the poverty-reduction potentials of buffer zone forests. Weak forest tenure in buffer zones is at the core of the problem. It is argued that in the absence of effective local voices conservation authorities have largely enjoyed monopoly over the policy process that often gives inadequate attention to local livelihoods. It is suggested that increased tenure security and access to markets must be part of decentralisation reform in order for the poor to benefit from forests.