Background: Current forests of the eastern USA have the potential to succeed in composition to more shade-tolerant species. However, long-term processes of transition from fire-tolerant tree species to fire-sensitive species and effects of current land use on forests may interfere with successional progression. Methods: I examined if forests in three regions have increased in shade tolerance and if life history strategy groups that represent response to disturbance (i.e., fire-tolerance, early-successional species based on low shade tolerance, mid-successional species, late-successional species, and trees valued for traits related to short harvest rotations) have changed, using Forest Inventory and Analysis surveys, adjusted for comparison, and generalized linear mixed models to assess approximately 30 year trends, with adjustments to equalize different survey methods. Results: Although statistically significant, a slight increase of 2 to 4% in regional mean shade tolerance may not be ecologically significant. In the central East, mid-successional species replaced early-successional species and early-successional species replaced fire-tolerant oaks, resulting in an overall shift from fire-tolerant oaks to mid-successional species. Decreased fire-tolerant pine species and increased planted pine species were the major changes in the northern Southeast and Coastal Plain. Conclusions: The successional process of increased composition by shade-tolerant species over time was overshadowed by land use changes that resulted in decreased fire-tolerant species and increased planted pine. Furthermore, frequent land use disturbance may continue to prevent the slow progress of compositional succession to very shade-tolerant species.