Aim This study evaluates the long-term history of grassland, heathland and shrubland communities that are high priorities for conservation in the north-eastern US and support numerous globally rare species. Such an historical perspective is necessary in order to develop appropriate conservation and management approaches for these communities.Location The study area encompasses the coastal region that extends from Cape Cod, MA to Long Island, NY, including the islands of Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, and Block Island.Methods In order to determine whether open-land habitats occurred in the study region prior to European arrival in the seventeenth century and to assess changes to these communities through the historical period, a wide range of palaeoecological, archaeological, ethno-historical, biological and field data were reviewed. Information about the history of human impacts on these communities was used to interpret landscape change over time and to evaluate current and potential conservation and management approaches.Results The region was predominantly wooded prior to widespread Euro-American land clearing beginning in the seventeenth century, with some areas of early successional habitats, primarily on exposed sites and near Native American settlements. Grasslands, heathlands and shrublands increased dramatically as a result of intensive and primarily agricultural disturbance through the historical period. The decline in recent decades of these communities results from extensive residential and commercial development, and from widespread abandonment of traditional agricultural practices, especially intensive grazing.Main conclusions Despite considerable uncertainty as to the pre-European distribution and abundance of species characteristic of grasslands, heathlands and shrublands, historical disturbances have been sufficiently widespread and severe that it is unlikely that modern species assemblages closely resemble those that occurred prior to European arrival. Management aimed at perpetuating early successional species assemblages on sites other than exposed, coastal locations may require use of traditional land-use practices or appropriate substitutes of comparable intensity. © 2002 Blackwell Science Ltd. Abstract reproduced by permission.