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Community assembly is a dynamic progression that reflects the interaction of several processes functioning at multiple scales. Understanding how these processes work in communities at different successional stages is important for identifying when regional or local processes are more important for community assembly, and for developing effective preservation and restoration strategies. We examined community assembly using a chronosequence of sub-alpine meadows in Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau that range from ‘natural’ (never farmed), to those that have been protected from agricultural exploitation for 1 to 10 years. We tested for shifts in species and traits among meadows and also for changes in environmental and spatial correlates of species distributions within meadows. We found that species richness increased and species composition returned to natural conditions within ten years of protection. These changes coincided with shifts in species traits; abundant species had high seed mass and specific leaf area in late-successional meadows, whereas the opposite occurred in early-successional meadows. Despite these shifts among meadows of different ages, spatial distributions of species within meadows did not change – when associated with abiotic variables, these spatial patterns reflected changes in soil pH and nitrogen. There was also no consistent change in the relative importance of environmental and spatial correlates of species distributions within meadows. These trends indicate that local processes of community assembly are similar within meadows even when species in those meadows differ. We conclude that successional change is a large-scale process that alters the species pool and resulting suite of traits that are present within meadows. As a result, regional planning that incorporates successional age should be the focus for the conservation of diversity in this area. In contrast, local processes work within the constraints of the species pool set by successional age, producing consistent patterns within meadows of different ages.