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Utahn tests the waters in the wilds

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PROVO — Wood Miller's job is a nature lover's dream.

As part of his duties, Miller spends at least two weeks of his summer hiking along tree-lined trails, sitting on the banks of babbling brooks and bunking in rustic cabins.

But the Brigham Young University engineering professor insists his treks to some 25 lakes and their tributaries in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks involve serious work.

"There are people who question if I'm doing valid work," he says, chuckling. "I think I am."

Along with trail mix and water bottles, Miller totes along conductivity probes, transparency disks and thermometers when he takes to the great outdoors.

For a week in June and August, Miller, his family and a few of his students do more than just take in the breathtaking scenery.

The bunch has monitored the water quality of the lakes for about six years. And, in addition to gathering information for graduate projects, their work has won praise from national park officials and scientists.

According to Miller, research indicates that, despite reports to the contrary, tourists have not had a negative effect on the quality of water in the lakes.

"All things look good," said Miller, a Rexburg, Idaho, native who camped at the parks as a boy. "None of the lakes have trouble at all."

Reports of poor conditions at a Teton lake first caught Miller's eye. At the time, a change in the water was blamed on the number of tourists who annually visit the area.

"I had a hard time believing that tourists were polluting the lakes, because the people I had seen visiting the lakes were all very responsible," said Miller, whose first research in Yellowstone was done while a graduate student at Stanford.

To find out if the lakes were being polluted by tourists, Miller hiked to the most remote lakes to collect water samples and then measured them for levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, chlorophyll, algae and dissolved minerals.

To gather the samples, Miller floats out into the middle of the frigid, just-thawed lakes on a cheap rubber raft.

"Maybe that's been the most dangerous part," he said. "If I were to fall out, I'd been in deep trouble."

Shaun Dustin didn't hesitate to work on the water-quality research effort. The civil engineering graduate measured phosphorus levels in the lakes for his master's project.

"The research was really involved," he said, "but I kind of felt like a biology student stomping around in the woods."

Park officials will compare the information gathered by the BYU professor with future studies.

Previous to Miller's work, there wasn't any data on file about water quality of the lakes, making it impossible for scientists to compare current levels to prior years.

Bob Schiller, chief of science and resource management in Grand Teton National Park, lauds Miller's work, which the professor has largely funded out of his own pocket.

"Dr. Miller's research gives us better information on the water quality of the lakes and enables us to correct any problems that his research may reveal," Schiller said.

Miller's trips to the lakes often serve as a family outing. His wife, four sons and two daughters go with him to help dip into the water for samples.

"We're pretty good hikers. We've gone several hundred miles," he said. "They pretty much look at it as a vacation, and I think they get a sense of accomplishment about it."

Miller, who hopes to continue gauging the quality of the streams and ponds for quite awhile, wants to expand his research into more lakes that haven't before been analyzed.

"There's a few in Yellowstone, a few more I can do."

E-mail: jeffh@desnews.com