In Norway, on-site biological surveys precede the designation of nature reserves. Although many nature conservation areas have been affected by past human use (e.g. cattle grazing, timber harvesting), a typical biological survey may fail to portray the extent of human influence on biodiversity and vegetation dynamics. In 1984, Hystad forest (western Norway) was made a nature reserve after botanists interpreted the ecosystem 'close to untouched'. It was thought best to leave the forest alone, so no management plan was developed. It was later realized that the vegetation was changing, but the reason was not obvious. I gathered and analyzed further biological data plus information on land-use history from varied sources (e.g. cadastral maps, archive material and oral histories). The area has undergone a series of transformations since the 17th century. The present forest is no more than 100 years old, and extensive parts are much younger. The initial survey underestimated the extent of cultural impact and failed to predict vegetation change subsequent to reserve establishment, whereas a historical-geographical approach reveals that the vegetation is in a state of transition, driven primarily by a change from active farming to farm abandonment. Planning for conservation must recognize past as well as present human use of the landscape to anticipate consequent land cover responses.