Efforts to promote popular participation in forest management in Sub-Saharan Africa have faced many obstacles and disappointments. Although promises of improvements in relation to forest management, rural livelihoods and local enfranchisement have been achieved in some cases, accounts of frustration outnumber those of success. Focusing on participation through democratic decentralization (namely the transfer of meaningful discretionary powers to local representative authorities), this paper reviews recent empirical studies on the outcomes of popular participation in forest management. The implementation of decentralization of forest management, and ecological, livelihood and democracy outcomes are examined, and misconceptions in analyses of decentralized forestry are explored. The expected benefits of democratic decentralization within forestry are rarely realized because democratic decentralization is rarely established. In most cases, local authorities do not represent the local population or their space of discretion is so narrow that they have little effect on management. There is little official local management taking place, even under so-called decentralized or participatory management arrangements. If ever significant space for local discretion under democratic authorities is created, researchers will have the opportunity to study whether democratic decentralization can deliver the theoretically promised positive outcomes. Nevertheless, some cases shed light on effects of local decision making. Three general observations are made on effects of decentralization. First, environmental, livelihood and democracy objectives are not always mutually reinforcing, and under some circumstances they may be at odds. Second, environmental effects of improved forest management often result in benefits accruing to distant or higher-scale aggregate populations, while local communities carry the costs. Third, poor peoples' use of natural resources to maintain their livelihoods often conflicts with profit and revenue interests of local elites, national commercial interests and governments. A negotiated minimum social and environmental standards approach to decentralization of forest management may safeguard essential ecological functions and at the same time protect essential livelihood and economic values of forests at all scales of society. The remainder of decisions, such as how forests are used, by whom and for what, could then be safely placed at the discretion of responsive local representatives.