Despite electrification, over 90% of rural households in certain areas of South Africa continue to depend on fuelwood, and this affects woody vegetation structure, with associated cascading effects on biodiversity within adjacent lands. To promote sustainable use, the interactions between anthropogenic and environmental factors affecting vegetation structure in savannahs need to be understood. Airborne light detection and ranging (LiDAR) data collected over 4758 ha were used to examine woody vegetation structure in five communal rangelands around 12 settlements in Bushbuckridge, a municipality in the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere Reserve (South Africa). The importance of underlying abiotic factors was evaluated by measuring size class distributions across catenas and using canonical correspondence analysis. Landscape position was significant in determining structure, indicating the importance of underlying biophysical factors. Differences in structure were settlement-specific, related to mean annual precipitation at one site, and human population density and intensity of use at the other four sites. Size class distributions of woody vegetation revealed human disturbance gradients around settlements. Intensity of use affected the amplitude, not the shape, of the size class distribution, suggesting the same height classes were being harvested across settlements, but amount harvested varied between settlements. Highly used rangelands result in a disappearance of disturbance gradients, leading to homogeneous patches of low woody cover around settlements with limited rehabilitation options. Reductions in disturbance gradients can serve as early warning indicators of woodland degradation, a useful tool in planning for conservation and sustainable development.