Around the world, there is growing desire and momentum for ecological restoration to happen faster, with better quality, and in more extensive areas. The question we ask is how can laws and governmental regulations best contribute to effective, successful, and broad-scale restoration? In the state of São Paulo, Brazil, there is a legal instrument (SMA 08-2008) whose aim is to increase the effectiveness of tropical forest restoration projects in particular. It establishes, among other things, requirements regarding the minimum number of native tree species to be reached within a given period of time in restoration projects and the precise proportion of functional groups or threatened species to be included when reforestation with native species is used as a restoration technique. There are, however, two differing perspectives among Brazilian restoration ecologists on the appropriateness of such detailed legal rules. For some, the rules help increase the chances that mandatory projects of ecological restoration will succeed. For the other group, there is no single way to achieve effective ecosystem restoration, and the existing science and know-how are far from sufficient to establish standardized technical and methodological norms or to justify that such norms be imposed. Both points of view are discussed here, aiming to help those developing new legislation and improving existing laws about ecological restoration. The precedents established in São Paulo, and at the federal level in Brazil, and the ongoing debate about those laws are worth considering and possibly applying elsewhere.