Many of the critical tensions around conservation with people in upper tributary watersheds involve challenges of scale. Ecosystem goods and services derived from these watersheds are frequently used and valued by people at several different spatial levels, making these resources difficult to manage effectively without taking cross-level interactions into account. A multi-level perspective allows a more nuanced understanding of the governance challenges in conservation. Rather than assuming that the correct and best levels are known, we look at how discourses and social practices privilege certain levels over others and help shape the way decisions are made. A multi-level perspective also helps explain why the expectations of different actors are hard to satisfy, and why projects are often perceived as failures by some but not all actors. Some of the differences are a result of looking at the system from different levels, others are the result of the failure to acknowledge important crosslevel interactions, and yet others arise from over-reliance on single-level theories. An improved understanding of scale-related politics in conservation creates opportunities for evolving more appropriate institutions to the challenges at hand.