The protection of forests is crucial to providing important ecosystem services, such as supplying clean air and water, safeguarding critical habitats for biodiversity, and reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. Despite this importance, global forest loss has steadily increased in recent decades. Protected Areas (PAs) currently account for almost 15% of Earth’s terrestrial surface and protect 5% of global tree cover and were developed as a principal approach to limit the impact of anthropogenic activities on natural, intact ecosystems and habitats. We assess global trends in forest loss inside and outside of PAs, and land cover following this forest loss, using a global map of tree cover loss and global maps of land cover. While forests in PAs experience loss at lower rates than non-protected forests, we find that the temporal trend of forest loss in PAs is markedly similar to that of all forest loss globally. We find that forest loss in PAs is most commonly—and increasingly—followed by shrubland, a broad category that could represent re-growing forest, agricultural fallows, or pasture lands in some regional contexts. Anthropogenic forest loss for agriculture is common in some regions, particularly in the global tropics, while wildfires, pests, and storm blowdown are a significant and consistent cause of forest loss in more northern latitudes, such as the United States, Canada, and Russia. Our study describes a process for screening tree cover loss and agriculture expansion taking place within PAs, and identification of priority targets for further site-specific assessments of threats to PAs. We illustrate an approach for more detailed assessment of forest loss in four case study PAs in Brazil, Indonesia, Democratic Republic of Congo, and the United States.
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