The understory of exotic tree plantations can have non-negligible native species richness. Ecological restoration of these sites may include the harvest of trees, depending on the tradeoff between timber income and harvest impacts on biodiversity. This study aimed to investigate how a site can recover from harvest disturbance, by comparing the regeneration of woody species in the understory of two types of 37-year-old Pinus taeda plantation (P1 and P2, high and low relative density of pine seedlings in the understory, respectively), with stands that were similar to P2 but subjected to harvest and then abandoned for 15 years (R sites). Secondary forests (SF) were used as references. We sampled three different sites for each stand condition; soil chemical properties, estimations of litter mass, and canopy cover were measured. P1 had low species diversity, and P2 and R had 50 and 46% of SF richness, respectively. The R site contained few pine saplings and was floristically similar to P2; this indicated that 15 years was sufficient for the recovery of plant diversity to near pre-harvesting levels. Soil fertility was highest in SF and lowest in P1. Thus old plantations of P. taeda with low relative density of pine juveniles can be cost-effective starting points for restoration. Despite the destructive effects of pine harvest, recovery of native species can occur rapidly. In situations in which clearcutting of pine stands is not planned or possible, modest thinning of P. taeda adults and/or intensive thinning of juveniles could expedite restoration.