Protected areas are a central pillar of efforts to safeguard biodiversity and ecosystem services, but their contribution to the conservation and management of European cultural landscapes that have complex spatial-temporal dynamics is unclear. The conservation strategy of biosphere reserves aims at integrating biodiversity and ecosystem service conservation with economic development by designating zones of differing protection and use intensities. It is applied worldwide to protect and manage valuable cultural landscapes. Using the example of a German biosphere reserve, we developed a framework to assess the effectiveness of Central European reserves in meeting their land cover related management goals. Based on digital biotope maps, we defined and assessed land cover change processes that were relevant to the reserve management's goals over a period of 13 years. We then compared these changes in the reserve's core, buffer, and transition zones and in a surrounding reference area by means of a geographical information system. (Un-)desirable key processes related to management aims were defined and compared for the various zones. We found that-despite an overall land cover persistence of approximately 85% across all zones-differences in land cover changes can be more prominent across zones inside the reserve than between the areas inside and outside of it. The reserve as a whole performed better than the surrounding reference area when using land cover related management goals as a benchmark. However, some highly desirable targets, such as the conversion of coniferous plantations into seminatural forests or the gain of valuable biotope types, affected larger areas in the nonprotected reference area than in the transition zone.