U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree is seeking up to $500,000 in federal funding for a study of whether the York River qualifies for protection under the National Wild and Scenic River System.

The House Committee on Natural Resources is considering whether to fund the request. If the 11-mile river eventually joins the system, it would be only the second in the state to do so. The other is the Allagash in northern Maine.

The study, which could take up to three years, would be overseen by the National Park Service and carried out by local groups, said Andrew Colvin, Pingree’s deputy director of communications. The $500,000 cost is an estimate based on previous studies, he said.

Nationally, 203 rivers are listed in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, created in 1968 by Congress to preserve free-flowing rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values.

“Getting that designation could mean significant federal investment in protecting the York River,” Pingree said in a prepared statement. “The river has incredible economic and environmental value to York, Eliot, Kittery, South Berwick and the surrounding areas.”

The York River flows from York Pond in Eliot to York Harbor. Its designation would likely lead to more federal funding for protecting wildlife habitat, as well as closer reviews of projects along or in the river such as dredging or erecting a dam, but would not limit private development or activity on private property, according to Pingree’s office.

In a Jan. 3 letter to Pingree, Caroline Donnelly, chairwoman of Friends of the York River, said town officials in York, Kittery and Eliot, as well as many local groups, support getting the river designated.

“The York River is one of the region’s defining features. Its waters are clean and flow in large part unencumbered,” Donnelly wrote. “It has an abundance of natural and cultural resources and is appreciated, valued and used by a diversity of residents and visitors.”

In May, Colvin said Pingree attended a forum where she learned how important the river is to conservation, wildlife, students, local businesses and historic preservation. It was after hearing all that input that she decided to seek the funding.

Colvin said Pingree is requesting a committee hearing this summer. If the committee approves, the funding would likely be combined with other small appropriations as part of an omnibus bill for congressional action.

Dan Haas of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said eligible rivers must be free flowing and have at least one “outstanding remarkable resource,” such as a geological feature or unique fish run.

The comprehensive study would map the river, assess habitats, wildlife and other attributes, as well as determine its eligibility and whether or not the river is suitable for designation.

It would also determine the river’s classification: “Wild” denotes little development in surrounding areas, such as with the Allagash River; “scenic” allows some structures and road crossings; and “recreational” rivers may run through urban areas or have many parallel roads, communities and surrounding development.

After the study’s completion, Haas said, the National Park Service would make a recommendation and Congress would have to approve legislation completing the designation.

 

Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at: ebouthillette@pressherald.com