SINKS CANYON—Shortly after Jack States welcomes me into his home near the mouth of this rocky canyon near Lander, I ask a question about his sod-roofed garage that leads to the topic of soil.
The next thing I know, States has launched into a geology lesson that involves the Pinedale Glacier, the Little Ice Age, massive ice dams and the mechanisms that altered the Popo Agie River’s path. He even sketches a diagram illustrating the movement of water through limestone layers.
This is classic States, said Randy Wise. Wise was an employee at Sinks Canyon State Park years ago when he met States, and said States — an innate educator — taught him a great deal. Wise, who now directs the Lander Museum, has continued to witness States’ immense knowledge and willingness to share it as a dedicated museum volunteer.
“As a resource for natural history, he’s absolutely invaluable and willing to share his time and his knowledge,” Wise said. “And I didn’t even know this about Jack until I started working here … his interest in history is as broad and deep as his natural history expertise.”
In Wise’s line of work, he said, he has encountered many people who are proprietary about their knowledge. “He is not like that at all,” Wise said. “He’s about getting this information out so everybody can access it, and use it.”
From keeping bees to archiving relics, exploring caves near his home and studying microscopic organisms in Wyoming’s soil, States is enthusiastic about understanding how science and history propel human life.
Curiosity defines him. His more than eight decades haven’t diminished his excitement for the intricacies of biology, the stories of his family tree or the state’s prime fishing holes. Under a shock of white hair, his face often lights up while explaining everything from the symbiotic association between fungi and trees to the day decades ago when he met his future wife.
“When I talk to him, I see all glasses and moppy hair,” said Cale Case, a state senator from Lander. “And he’s just so smart. He’s very holistic in his thinking about the world.”
States has discovered new fungi and molds, contributed to research into soil pathogens that sicken animals, worked alongside the luminary biologist E.O. Wilson and penned a chapter for writer Annie Proulx. The former ski patroller and national park ranger has explored many Wyoming wild lands, and he’s been charged by more moose than he’d like to admit.
“Moose don’t like me,” he observed dryly before recounting several close calls involving the large ungulates. The old swayback cow that’s been hanging out near his apple trees this winter, he said, seems to be the exception. She tolerates him.
The home place
States was born in 1941 in Laramie, alongside his twin, James. The boys and their younger brother mostly grew up in Saratoga, where their father, an expert in both radio systems and bee diseases, ran a large honey packing operation called States Apiaries and Beeline Honey Company with their grandfather.
The family lived to hunt and fish, and the twins grew up fiercely competitive, States said. They strove to outfish one another, were terrific marksmen and traveled across Wyoming to play sports, occasionally getting stranded in snowstorms on Interstate 80’s predecessor, U.S. Route 30. His father ran about 2,000 bee colonies, and the family traveled to Lander every summer to deliver bees and visit the ranch where his father grew up.
The family has a long history with the States Canyon Ranch — States now lives on what remains of it. States’ grandfather, Herbert States, “came here on horseback from Nebraska looking for a place to raise horses,” States explained from his dining room as juncos and chickadees flocked a feeder outside the window.
Herbert States took the train from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Cody, and thought he’d settle in Jackson Hole. He rode his horse south with a packhorse in tow, but when he tried to cross the Snake River with his horses, he “almost drowned,” States said.
The experience changed his itinerary; States ended up riding over Togwotee Pass and to Lander, where he used family money to buy the 1,600-acres spread in 1903. His parents and sister soon joined him.
The ranch spanned the river bottom and rocky, windswept rises near the mouth of the canyon. An apple orchard and rudimentary cabins sat on the land. Though it had been homesteaded by European settlers in 1883, Northern Arapaho people had long visited the area to pick chokecherries in its dense thickets and continued to do so. To this day, their descendants visit to pick chokecherries, States said.
At its largest the ranch grew to 2,200 acres of deeded land and held the lease of almost all of what is now Sinks Canyon State Park.
Life of science
States attended the University of Wyoming, majoring in biology with an emphasis in botany and a minor in history. After graduation in 1964, with no solid plans, he drove up to Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park with a friend.
“And we just lived on the fish I caught,” States said. “And we hiked the country and did all this stuff up there. And I said, ‘hey, I think I’d like to get a job up here.’”
He walked into the park’s administration building shortly after and asked the chief ranger if there were any jobs for college graduates. To his surprise, he was hired within days — to fill a position another person hadn’t shown up for. He became a “roving ranger,” filling in on boat patrol, working the entrance station, rangering in the backcountry and more. He got his own cabin in a campground, and spent his days off fishing for big lake trout with campers he met.
One day, he heard the park had added a couple women to its male staff. He finagled a shift where he knew the women were working, he said, and when he walked in, “who was standing there but my future wife.”
Diantha Green was a bright young naturalist from North Dakota who was required to wear a skirt that whole summer, regardless of harsh weather and rough terrain, States said. When the pair returned to the park the following season, they were married.
After that, they moved to Laramie, where States got an assistantship in UW’s botany department, and Diantha worked for the Rocky Mountain Herbarium.
For his master’s degree, he researched a problem discovered by renowned Wyoming State Geologist David Love. Elk near Grand Teton National Park were aborting fetuses after eating certain plants. States studied the process by which selenium in soils is taken up by plants — which is what caused the females to miscarry.
“It was mostly mold in the soil that we found out was actually responsible for the conversion of selenium … into the plant,” he said. That discovery led to a lifetime of study of soil science, microbes, mycorrhiza and animal health.
States earned a Ph.D. at the University of Alberta — drawn by its proximity to skiing in Jasper National Park. There, he studied wood decay fungi. “There was a great need to determine what the causal fungus was in especially downed logs that were waiting to be transferred to the mill,” he said. “I got its reproductive structures to form naturally in culture” — a breakthrough for the industry.
Later, he helped identify a toxin in lichens that killed elk near Rawlins after cows overgrazed the landscape, he said, and was part of the scientific network that gleaned an understanding of the fragility of cryptobiotic soils in the deserts of the Great Basin.
The work cemented his understanding of the multitude of connections that tie the natural world together, and how a single severed tie can unravel a whole system.
It’s a lesson he imparted on museum director Wise in those state park days.
“One thing that he taught me very early on and I still use this lesson, even as a historian, is how everything is interrelated,” Wise said. “It is all connected, and you can’t really understand one thing without at least having a working knowledge of a lot of other things that tie directly into that. And I find that with history now, too.”
The teaching years
After earning his doctorate, States and his family returned to Laramie before he secured a professorship at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff in 1970. He taught there for 25 years, specializing in ecological symbioses of mushrooms. He published dozens of papers, authored a guidebook titled “Mushrooms and Truffles of the Southwest” and isolated and discovered new species of molds and fungi.
A false truffle he discovered in Arizona was later named under the new genus Statesia, in his honor. He also helped identify a crucial symbiotic relationship between Southwestern tassel-eared squirrels and many species of truffles that are indispensable for conifer roots systems, he said. The squirrels depend on truffles for food in the winter, and the trees depend on squirrels to spread their spores. Those spores, he said, “are the single most important promoter of seedling survival in regeneration in southwest ponderosa pine forests.”
Most importantly, he said, his team found that truffles, like seedlings, need a certain spatial pattern of pines for ground shade in order to reproduce. That discovery “allowed us to recommend against clear-cutting broad areas of forest and to leave trees in groups or patches instead,” a harvest pattern the Forest Service adopted for timber management in the Southwest.
He considers the discovery of that forest resilience insight one of his crowning achievements.
“So I always say, ‘of all of the crazy things I did as a mycologist, I think finding out that important relationship between a tree, a squirrel and a dropping was my contribution to science.’”
Along with advocating for causes such as stopping the timber industry from harvesting mature ponderosas on the Kaibab Plateau, he raised two children with Diantha, led boy scout troops on wilderness trips and joined the ski patrol at nearby Snowbowl. He was on patrol there “until I couldn’t ski any more.”
After hearing news that his family was selling the Lander ranch, he asked his grandmother to sell him a small portion. She did, and in 1995, he and Diantha relocated to the Canyon Ranch.
Just one more facet of Jack States
States has been anything but idle since retirement. He taught courses at Central Wyoming College. He and his wife sell apples and honey at the farmers market, along with her art. (She is the author of the well-known guidebook “Wildflowers of Wyoming,” which States co-authored.) He helped found a friends group for the Sinks Canyon State Park, serving as its president for 25 years.
He keeps meticulous weather records, volunteers at the museum where he is undertaking a project to compile a database on homesteaders and has for many years served on the Popo Agie Conservation District.
State’s degree of involvement in the community is impressive to Pat Troutman, who has known States since she was a teenager growing up near the Canyon Ranch.
“A lot of people, they go other places to make their lives and get their education, with the idea of coming back here, and I think that’s a real common theme,” she said. What’s much more uncommon, she said, is coming back, immersing oneself in the local culture like States has and working to both preserve the past and develop the future. “I think he’s really remarkable for that.”
Former Game and Fish Regional Wildlife Supervisor Kent Schmidlin met States through his involvement in the Sinks Canyon friends group, where he represented Game and Fish. States, he said, is “probably one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met … I think he has interest and knowledge in every facet of a natural setting that I can ever think of.”
States, Schmidlin said, “is just somebody that all of us could emulate to some degree, and feel better about what we’ve done or what we’re doing.”