A clammer leaves a mud flat along the York River near the Wiggley Bridge in 2016. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

Senators Angus King and Susan Collins have introduced legislation to designate the York River as “wild and scenic,” the latest step in a decade-long effort to protect the river’s economic, scenic, historical and recreational value.

The York River would be the first river in Maine designated as a Wild and Scenic Partnership River, which could lead to federal funding for habitat restoration or other projects. The model emphasizes local management and control, and local leaders say the designation would allow groups to work together to protect the river.

The river flows from York Pond in Eliot to York Harbor.

Fishermen, recreational boaters, hunters and historical preservationists have been pushing for the designation for nearly a decade. In February 2019, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, introduced a bill to designate the York River in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers system. U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, D-2nd District, is a co-sponsor of the bill.

“Generations of Southern Maine people have built their communities around the York River’s important ecological benefits and the economic opportunities it creates,” King and Collins said in a joint statement. “After an extensive process, including a study from the National Park Service, years of engagement with local communities and residents, and working with the state of Maine, we’re proud to introduce legislation to designate this important waterway as a partnership Wild and Scenic River. This designation will allow new sources of funding to support both the health of the York River and the economic prospects of the communities that rely on it.”

Established by Congress in 1968, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Program aims to protect free-flowing rivers that are deemed to have “outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values.”

The Allagash Wilderness Waterway in far northern Maine is designated a wild and scenic river, a different federal classification that comes with restrictions on development.

In 2014, federal legislation sponsored by Maine lawmakers was approved by Congress to study the York River. That multi-year study concluded more than 30 miles of the York River and its tributaries are eligible and suitable for designation as a Wild and Scenic Partnership River.

The river and its watershed flow through York, Kittery, South Berwick and Eliot, but most is in York. The river runs from York Pond past rolling hills, farm fields and salt marshes to York Harbor. It is used by commercial and recreational fishermen, including more than a dozen full-time lobstermen who keep their boats in York Harbor.

York, Eliot, Kittery and South Berwick have endorsed the designation.

The salt marshes in the watershed serve as a nursery ground for nearly 30 species of fish. There are habitats for wading birds, migrating and nesting waterfowl, the endangered box turtle and the threatened harlequin duck.

The York River Watershed Stewardship Plan was approved by the York River Study Committee in July 2018. The plan is an advisory document that outlines recommendations aimed at preserving and enhancing the historic resources, ecology, wildlife, water quality, working waterfront, scenic qualities and cultural resources.

Local leaders welcomed news of the Senate bill and say the designation is vital to having a sustainable local commercial fishery and protecting the river’s natural resources.

Judy Spiller, a Kittery town councilor and member of the York River Study Committee, said few local issues have seen “the broad and passionate support the York River designation has.”

“The reasons are simple. With the tide, one can float from the headwaters down the river through history from remnants of precontact settlement through marshes and forests that nourish a rich biota ending at the river mouth with stately colonial homes and a thriving lobster fishery,” she said in a statement. “The watershed – a shared York, Eliot, Kittery, and South Berwick resource – buffers us from intense regional development pressure and the pristine forested areas supply clean drinking water. And in the future, if protected, the watershed will provide resilience in the face of rising sea levels. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the York River and its tributaries are at once reassuringly always the same yet always subtly different: inspiration to all those who encounter it. Designation will preserve that for us and our children and our children’s children and on.”

The designation is also supported by the York Lobstermen’s Association.

“The York River is the lifeblood of the commercial fisheries off of York Harbor and is vital to having a sustainable local commercial fishery. The establishment of the York River into the Wild and Scenic Rivers program helps to ensure that the York River will be preserved for the future and that a robust local commercial fishery will be sustained into the future,” said Jeff White, president of the association.


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