For protected areas (PAs), variation in forest impacts over space—including types of PA—are increasingly well documented, while shifts in impacts over time receive less attention. For Mexico, in the 1990s, PAs effectively were ‘paper parks’. Thus, achieving impacts on the forest would require shifts over time in the politics of PA siting and PA implementation. We rigorously analyze the impacts of Mexican PAs on 2000–2005 loss of natural land cover, using matching to reduce location bias caused by typical land-use economics and politics. We find a 3.2% lower loss, on average, due to PAs. Since politics often vary by type of PA, we also show that in Mexico stricter PAs are closer to cities and have greater impact than mixed-use PAs. These shifts in impacts suggest some potential for PAs to conserve forests.