To develop effective environmental policies, we must understand the mechanisms through which the policies affect social and environmental outcomes. Unfortunately, empirical evidence about these mechanisms is limited, and little guidance for quantifying them exists. We develop an approach to quantifying the mechanisms through which protected areas affect poverty. We focus on three mechanisms: changes in tourism and recreational services; changes in infrastructure in the form of road networks, health clinics, and schools; and changes in regulating and provisioning ecosystem services and foregone production activities that arise from land-use restrictions. The contributions of ecotourism and other ecosystem services to poverty alleviation in the context of a real environmental program have not yet been empirically estimated. Nearly two-thirds of the poverty reduction associated with the establishment of Costa Rican protected areas is causally attributable to opportunities afforded by tourism. Although protected areas reduced deforestation and increased regrowth, these land cover changes neither reduced nor exacerbated poverty, on average. Protected areas did not, on average, affect our measures of infrastructure and thus did not contribute to poverty reduction through this mechanism. We attribute the remaining poverty reduction to unobserved dimensions of our mechanisms or to other mechanisms. Our study empirically estimates previously unidentified contributions of ecotourism and other ecosystem services to poverty alleviation in the context of a real environmental program. We demonstrate that, with existing data and appropriate empirical methods, conservation scientists and policymakers can begin to elucidate the mechanisms through which ecosystem conservation programs affect human welfare.