Myriad scholars, policymakers, and practitioners advocate tree planting as a climate mitigation strategy and to support local livelihoods. But, is the broad appeal of tree planting supported by evidence? We report estimated impacts from decades of tree planting in Northern India. We find that tree plantings have not, on average, increased the proportion of dense forest cover, and have modestly shifted species composition away from the broadleaf varieties valued by local people. Supplementary analysis from household livelihood surveys show that, in contrast to narratives of forest dependent people being supported by tree planting, there are few direct users of these plantations and their dependence is low. We conclude that decades of expensive tree planting programs have not proved effective.