No net loss (NNL) policies involve quantifying biodiversity impacts associated with economic development, and implementing commensurate conservation gains to balance losses. Local stakeholders are often affected by NNL biodiversity trades. But to what extent are NNL principles intuitive to stakeholders when they are not experts? We surveyed 691 students with limited or no knowledge of NNL policy across three countries, eliciting perceptions of what constitutes sufficient ecological compensation for forest habitat losses from infrastructure development. NNL policies assume that biodiversity compensation should be – close to development impacts, greater than losses, smaller, given a background trend of biodiversity decline, and, smaller when gains have co-benefits for biodiversity. However, survey participant proposals violated all four principles. Participants proposed substantial forest compensation abroad, did not always require commensurate compensation within their own country, and required more forest creation if background trends were for habitat decline or if forest creation had fauna co-benefits. Our findings suggest that, under certain circumstances, international biodiversity trades could deserve consideration. The findings also support proposals to incorporate social considerations into compensation ratios for NNL. Wherever the rationale underlying NNL is discovered to be counterintuitive insofar as relevant stakeholders are concerned, careful communication of policy intentions is required.