A key goal of functional ecology is identifying relationships between species traits and environmental conditions. Here, the nature and significance of these relationships to community composition on long ecological timescales is investigated using paleoecological and paleoenvironmental data from coastal British Columbia, Canada. RLQ and fourth-corner analyses, two three-table statistical techniques, are used to link traits of the region's dominant woody plants to environmental conditions over the last 15 000 calendar years (cal yr) through a fossil pollen record derived from lake sediments. Both RLQ and fourth-corner analyses revealed highly significant correlations between plant traits and temporal changes in environmental conditions. Axis 1 of the RLQ explained 92% of the total covariance between plant species traits and paleoenvironmental variables and was correlated most strongly with temperature and relative growth rate. In general, climate change during the cold period following deglaciation favored species such as Alnus sinuata and Pinus contorta that exhibit a "fast" life-history strategy (e.g., high relative growth rate, short life span, low shade tolerance), whereas the relative climatic stability of the last 8000 cal yr favored species such as Tsuga heterophylla that exhibit a "slow" life-history strategy (e.g., low relative growth rate, long life span, high shade tolerance). Fourth-corner analyses revealed significant correlations between all paleoenvironmental variables (i.e., temperature, precipitation, summer insolation, vegetation density) and most plant traits (relative growth rate, minimum seed-bearing age, seed mass, height, life span, and shade, drought, and waterlogging tolerances). The strongest correlation was between paleotemperature and height, reflecting the positive effect of temperature on plant growth and development and the overarching competitive advantage that height confers. This research demonstrates that environmental conditions interact significantly with life-history and stress tolerance traits over long ecological timescales to determine forest composition. Climate is the ultimate control on postglacial forest composition and species abundances, but long-term community assembly is also constrained through interspecific differences in plant traits.