Protected areas, including nature reserves and management areas, are established for the conservation of biological diversity and protection of the associated natural and cultural resources. These objectives, however, are often in conflict with socio-economic development. We investigated the plant communities dominated by the dove tree Davidia involucrata in a nature reserve on Mount Jinfo, China, where people intensively manage large areas of bamboo stands. We found a significant lack of small-sized main stems of D. involucrata (0–25 cm diameter at breast height; height > 1.3 m) and newly emerging sprouts in the reserve. The height-class distribution showed a unimodal pattern, with most individuals (of both D. involucrata and co-occurring species) concentrated in the 16–28 m height-class, and few individuals in the shrub and sub-canopy layer (1.3–8 m). Existing practices to facilitate the spread of bamboo stands, and the need to develop a local market for bamboo shoots received little consideration when the nature reserve was established in 1979 to protect D. involucrata. To conserve D. involucrata on Mount Jinfo the appropriate authorities and local parties involved in bamboo harvesting need to focus on methods that are favourable to the life history of this and other tree species, and strategies for their regeneration. These methods will also benefit the conservation of other highly valued trees that share similar life-history characteristics with D. involucrata.