Long-term studies can broaden our ecological understanding and are particularly important when examining contingent effects that involve changes to dominance by long-lived species. Such a change occurred during the last century in Southwestern (USA) ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) forests. We used five livestock grazing exclosures established in 1912 to quantify vegetation structure in 1941 and 2004. Our objectives were to (1) assess the effects of historical livestock grazing on overstory structure and age distribution, (2) assess the effects of recent livestock grazing and overstory on understory vegetation, and (3) quantify and explain changes in understory vegetation between 1941 and 2004. In 1941, canopy cover of tree regeneration was significantly higher inside exclosures. In 2004, total tree canopy cover was twice as high, density was three times higher, trees were smaller, and total basal area was 40% higher inside exclosures. Understory species density, herbaceous plant density, and herbaceous cover were negatively correlated with overstory vegetation in both years. Most understory variables did not differ between grazing treatments in 1941 but were lower inside exclosures in 2004. Differences between grazing treatments disappeared once overstory effects were accounted for, indicating that they were due to the differential overstory response to historical livestock grazing practices. Between 1941 and 2004, species density declined by 34%, herbaceous plant density by 37%, shrub cover by 69%, total herbaceous cover by 59%, graminoid cover by 39%, and forb cover by 82%. However, these variables did not differ between grazing treatments or years once overstory effects were accounted for, indicating that the declines were driven by the increased dominance of the overstory during this period. Our results demonstrate that historical livestock grazing practices are an aspect of land-use history that can affect ecosystem development. Grazing history must be considered when extrapolating results from one site to another. In addition, the understory vegetation was more strongly controlled by the ponderosa pine overstory than by recent livestock grazing or by temporal dynamics, indicating that overstory effects must be accounted for when examining understory responses in this ecosystem.