BACKGROUND: Conversion of forests to other land cover or land use releases the carbon stored in the forests and reduces carbon sequestration potential of the land. The rate of forest conversion could be reduced by establishing protected areas for biological diversity and other conservation goals. The purpose of this study is to quantify the efficiency and potential of forest land protection for mitigating GHG emissions. RESULTS: The analysis of related national-level datasets shows that during the period of 1992-2001 net forest losses in protected areas were small as compared to those in unprotected areas: -0.74% and -4.07%, respectively. If forest loss rates in protected and unprotected area had been similar, then forest losses in the protected forestlands would be larger by 870 km2/yr forests, that corresponds to release of 7 Tg C/yr (1 Tg=1012 g). Conversely, and continuing to assume no leakage effects or interactions of prices and harvest levels, about 1,200 km2/yr forests could have remained forest during the period of 1992-2001 if net area loss rate in the forestland outside protected areas was reduced by 20%. Not counting carbon in harvested wood products, this is equivalent to reducing fossil-fuel based carbon emissions by 10 Tg C/yr during this period. The South and West had much higher potentials to mitigate GHG emission from reducing loss rates in unprotected forests than that of North region. Spatially, rates of forest loss were higher across the coastal states in the southeastern US than would be expected from their population change, while interior states in the northern US experienced less forest area loss than would have been expected given their demographic characteristics. CONCLUSIONS: The estimated carbon benefit from the reduced forest loss based on current protected areas is 7 Tg C/yr, equivalent to the average carbon benefit per year for a previously proposed ten-year $110 million per year tree planting program scenario in the US. If there had been a program that could have reduced forest area loss by 20% in unprotected forestlands during 1992-2001, collectively the benefits from reduced forest loss would be equal to 9.4% of current net forest ecosystem carbon sequestration in the conterminous US.