Southwestern USA ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa C. Lawson var. scopulorum Engelm.) forests evolved with frequent surface fires and have changed dramatically over the last century. Overstory tree density has sharply increased while abundance of understory vegetation has declined primarily due to the near cessation of fires. We examined effects of varying prescribed fire-return intervals (1, 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10 years, plus unburned) on the abundance and composition of understory vegetation in 2007 and 2008 after 30+ years of fall prescribed burning at two ponderosa pine sites. We found thatafter 30 years, overstory canopy cover remained high, while understory plant canopy cover was low, averaging <12% on all burn intervals. We attributed the weak understory response to a few factors – the most important of which was the high overstory cover at both sites. Graminoid cover and cover of the major grass species, Elymus elymoides (squirreltail), increased on shorter fire-return intervals compared to unburned plots, but only at one site. Community composition differed significantly between shorter fire-return intervals and unburned plots at one site, but not the other. For several response variables, precipitation levels appeared to have a stronger effect than treatments. Our findings suggest that low-severity burn treatments in southwestern ponderosa pine forests, especially those that do not decrease overstory cover, are minimally effective in increasing understory plant cover. Thinning of these dense forests along with prescribed burning is necessary to increase cover of understory vegetation.