Many ecosystems of conservation concern require some level of disturbance to sustain their species composition and ecological function. However, inappropriate disturbance regimes could favor invasion or expansion of exotic species. In southern California coastal sage scrub (CSS) fire is a natural disturbance, but because of human influence, frequencies may now be unnaturally high. Other anthropogenic disturbances such as grazing also occur in reserve areas. Managers charged with imposing or tolerating fire or other disturbance within their reserves are concerned that habitat quality may be degraded by an increasing abundance of exotic plants. We used vegetation monitoring data from Camp Pendleton, California, USA, to assess the correlation between past disturbances (frequent fire, agriculture, or grazing and mechanical disturbances) and current exotic species abundance in CSS. We found that disturbance history was only modestly related to exotic abundance overall, but fire frequency showed the strongest association. We also examined whether cover and richness of various native plant life forms (woody species, perennial herbs, and annual herbs) were more strongly influenced by disturbance history or by exotic-plant abundance. Native plant responses varied among life forms, but woody species and annual herbs were generally more strongly and negatively associated with exotic abundance than with disturbance. Effective CSS conservation will require developing means to curb the negative impacts of exotic plants, which may abound with or without severe or recent disturbance. Additionally, more focus should be given to understory herbs showing sensitivity to invasion. Though understudied, native herbs comprise the greatest portion of plant diversity in CSS and are critical to preservation of the community as a whole. ?? 2009 by the Ecological Society of America.