Although local increases in woody plant cover have been documented in arid and semiarid ecosystems worldwide, there have been few long-term, large-scale analyses of changes in woody plant cover and aboveground carbon (C) stocks. We used historical aerial photography, contemporary Landsat satellite data, field observations, and image analysis techniques to assess spatially specific changes in woody vegetation cover and aboveground C stocks between 1937 and 1999 in a 400-km2 region of northern Texas, USA. Changes in land cover were then related to topo-edaphic setting and historical land-use practices. Mechanical or chemical brush management occurred over much of the region in the 1940–1950s. Rangelands not targeted for brush management experienced woody cover increases of up to 500% in 63 years. Areas managed with herbicides, mechanical treatments or fire exhibited a wide range of woody cover changes relative to 1937 (−75% to + 280%), depending on soil type and time since last management action. At the integrated regional scale, there was a net 30% increase in woody plant cover over the 63-year period. Regional increases were greatest in riparian corridors (33%) and shallow clay uplands (26%) and least on upland clay loams (15%). Allometric relationships between canopy cover and aboveground biomass were used to estimate net aboveground C storage changes in upland (nonriparian) portions of regional landscapes. Carbon stocks increased from 380 g C m−2 in 1937 to 500 g C m−2 in 1999, a 32% net increase across the 400 km2 region over the 63-year period. These plant C storage change estimates are highly conservative in that they did not include the substantial increases in woody plant cover observed within riparian landscape elements. Results are discussed in terms of implications for ‘carbon accounting’ and the global C cycle.