China's recent collective forest tenure reform is intended to clarify and certify forest rights, and thereby promote market circulation of forestland, encourage forestry production and safeguard conservation. Central policy statements prioritize parcelling tenure among households to promote efficient management. This study examines how participants experienced the programme in communities in north-west Yunnan. In the study area, rather than individualizing tenure, forestry agencies compelled communities to re-collectivize forests. Nonetheless, residents persist in using household forests despite restrictions. Local officials tacitly sanction these activities. In mountain hinterlands, forest tenure reform has been focused on “stabilizing” forests and communities. Rather than forcibly impose tenure designs, authorities perform what we call accommodative buffering. A set of formal institutions, rules and mappings enables projects like forest ecological compensation payments to go forward. However, state agents at local and higher levels tolerate informal practices that contain the trouble that poorly fitted formal institutions might cause. While potentially more resilient than by-the-book enforcement, these arrangements could leave residents vulnerable to political shifts that require a demonstration of policy adherence.