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The potential natural vegetation (PNV) concept has parallel applications in Europe and North America. Paleoecological studies in parts of North America provide records of vegetation patterns and dynamics under little or no human disturbance. Something resembling PNV emerges at millennial temporal scales and at regional to subcontinental spatial scales. However, at finer spatial and temporal scales, actual vegetation often displays properties of inertia, contingency and hysteresis, most frequently because of climatic variability across multiple timescales and the episodic nature of disturbance and establishment. Thus, in the absence of human disturbance, the actual vegetation that develops at a site may not resemble a particular PNV ideal, but could instead represent one of any number of potential outcomes constrained by historically contingent processes. PNV may best be viewed as an artificial construct, with utility in some settings. Its utility may diminish and even be detrimental in a rapidly changing environment.