Because of the role that peripheral forest landscapes played in postwar nation-building, the Lao military has long played a significant, even if often hard-to-see, role in the administration of the country's protected areas. This role is becoming increasingly apparent as transnational market-based forest governance efforts begin to threaten military administration of protected areas. As a consequence, the multi-dimensional nature of security - both defensive in the classic military sense, but also increasingly economic and complex - is coming to light through uses of what we describe as the security exception: the invocation of national security, in this case by military actors, to manage the reach and efficacy of emerging forest governance efforts. Projects to reduce climate-related emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) have been especially prone to trigger the security exception due to their focus on forest measurement and change over time, and are examined here in two cases from protected areas in western and southern Laos. We suggest that even as conflicts over forest management may be interpreted through the lens of foreign domination and the loss of domestic sovereignty - indeed the security exception feeds on such interpretations - these conflicts are better understood as struggles within the Lao state and society over the how to manage and use forest resources in a context of economic uncertainty and persistent underdevelopment. In such a context, the role of conservation NGOs and Western donors as gatekeepers to ongoing transnational governance efforts is nonetheless highly significant.