Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by woody vegetation influence global climate forcing and the formation of tropospheric ozone. We use data from over 250 000 re-surveyed forest plots in the eastern US to estimate emission rates for the two most important biogenic VOCs (isoprene and monoterpenes) in the 1980s and 1990s, and then compare these estimates to give a decadal change in emission rate. Over much of the region, particularly the southeast, we estimate that there were large changes in biogenic VOC emissions: half of the grid cells (1°× 1°) had decadal changes in emission rate outside the range −2.3% to +16.8% for isoprene, and outside the range 0.2–17.1% for monoterpenes. For an average grid cell the estimated decadal change in heatwave biogenic VOC emissions (usually an increase) was three times greater than the decadal change in heatwave anthropogenic VOC emissions (usually a decrease, caused by legislation). Leaf-area increases in forests, caused by anthropogenic disturbance, were the most important process increasing biogenic VOC emissions. However, in the southeast, which had the largest estimated changes, there were substantial effects of ecological succession (which decreased monoterpene emissions and had location-specific effects on isoprene emissions), harvesting (which decreased monoterpene emissions and increased isoprene emissions) and plantation management (which increased isoprene emissions, and decreased monoterpene emissions in some states but increased monoterpene emissions in others). In any given region, changes in a very few tree species caused most of the changes in emissions: the rapid changes in the southeast were caused almost entirely by increases in sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) and a few pine species. Therefore, in these regions, a more detailed ecological understanding of just a few species could greatly improve our understanding of the relationship between natural ecological processes, forest management, and biogenic VOC emissions.