Soil respiration is controlled by soil temperature, soil water, fine roots, microbial activity, and soil physical and chemical properties. Forest thinning changes soil temperature, soil water content, and root density and activity, and thus changes soil respiration. We measured soil respiration monthly and soil temperature and volumetric soil water continuously in a young ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa Dougl. ex P. Laws. & C. Laws.) plantation in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California from June 1998 to May 2000 (before a thinning that removed 30% of the biomass), and from May to December 2001 (after thinning). Thinning increased the spatial homogeneity of soil temperature and respiration. We conducted a multivariate analysis with two independent variables of soil temperature and water and a categorical variable representing the thinning event to simulate soil respiration and assess the effect of thinning. Thinning did not change the sensitivity of soil respiration to temperature or to water, but decreased total soil respiration by 13% at a given temperature and water content. This decrease in soil respiration was likely associated with the decrease in root density after thinning. With a model driven by continuous soil temperature and water time series, we estimated that total soil respiration was 948, 949 and 831 g C m− year− in the years 1999, 2000 and 2001, respectively. Although thinning reduced soil respiration at a given temperature and water content, because of natural climate variability and the thinning effect on soil temperature and water, actual cumulative soil respiration showed no clear trend following thinning. We conclude that the effect of forest thinning on soil respiration is the combined result of a decrease in root respiration, an increase in soil organic matter, and changes in soil temperature and water due to both thinning and interannual climate variability.