Forests have historically been under significant land use pressures that cause periods of degradation, clearance, and recovery. To understand these changes, studies are needed that place trends in a historical landscape context and also examine recent dynamics. Here, we use historical investigation (c. 1800) and an examination of land use and land cover change between 1973 and 2006 to establish a baseline trajectory of the forested system of the south-central United States (US) plains. The study culminates in a highly detailed accounting of the processes and causes of land change between 2001 and 2006. In the study region, the forest transitioned from early low-intensity use, to clearance for farming and timber, to widespread recovery from degradation beginning in the 1930s. By 1970, the region was transitioning from recovered woodlands to an intensive regime of recurrent timber harvest and replanting. The recurring cycle inherent in intensive silviculture has been the main cause of land change for the past several decades, accounting for more than 95% of the total extent of change between 2001 and 2006. The transition to forest recovery in the south-central US was an important historical occurrence. However, the dynamic post-transition landscape needs to be better understood.