In the last two decades, attention on forests and ownership rights has increased in different domains of international policy, particularly in relation to achieving the global sustainable development goals. This paper looks at the changes in forest-specific legislation applicable to regular productive forests, across 28 European countries. We compare the legal framework applicable in the mid-1990s with that applicable in 2015, using the Property Rights Index in Forestry (PRIF) to measure changes across time and space. The paper shows that forest owners in most western European countries already had high decision-making power in the mid-1990s, following deregulation trends from the 1980s; and for the next two decades, distribution of rights remained largely stable. For these countries, the content and direction of changes indicate that the main pressure on forest-focused legislation comes from environmental discourses (e.g. biodiversity and climate change policies). In contrast, former socialist countries in the mid-1990s gave lower decision-making powers to forest owners than in any of the Western Europe countries; over the next 20 years these show remarkable changes in management, exclusion and withdrawal rights. As a result of these changes, there is no longer a clear line between western and former socialist countries with respect to the national governance systems used to address private forest ownership. Nevertheless, with the exception of Baltic countries which have moved towards the western forest governance system, most of the former socialist countries still maintain a state-centred approach in private forest management. Overall, most of the changes we identified in the last two decades across Europe were recorded in the categories of management rights and exclusion rights. These changes reflect the general trend in European forest policies to expand and reinforce the landowners’ individual rights, while preserving minimal rights for other categories of forest users; and to promote the use of financial instruments when targeting policy goals related to the environmental discourse.