Papua New Guinea (PNG) is an extensively forested country. Recent research suggests that despite commencing a trajectory of deforestation and degradation later than many counties in the Asia–Pacific region, PNG is now undergoing comparable rates of forest change. Here we explore the bioregional distribution of changes in the forest estate over the period 1972–2002 and examine their implications for forest protection. This is undertaken through the development of a novel bioregional classification of the country based on biogeographic regions and climatic zones, and its application to existing forest cover and forest-cover change data. We found that degradation and deforestation varied considerably across the 11 defined biogeographic regions. We report that the majority of deforestation and degradation has occurred within all the lowland forests, and that it is these forests that have the greatest potential for further losses in the near term. The largest percentage of total change occurred in the east of PNG, in the islands and lowlands of the Bismarck, D'Entrecasteaux, East Papuan Islands and in the South-East Papua–Oro region. The only region with a significant highlands component to undergo deforestation at a comparable magnitude to the islands and lowland regions was the Huon Peninsula and Adelbert region. Significant changes have also occurred at higher elevations, especially at the interface of subalpine grasslands and upper montane forests. Lower montane forests have experienced proportionally less change, yet it is these forests that constitute the majority of forests enclosed within the protected area system. We find that protected areas are not convincingly protecting either representative areas of PNG's ecosystems, nor the forests within their borders. We conclude by suggesting a more expansive and integrated approach to managing the national forest estate.