A lobster boat floats in the York River, which is used by commercial and recreational fishermen. The river flows from York Pond past farm fields and salt marshes to York Harbor, touching York, Kittery, South Berwick and Eliot. Press Herald file photo

More than 30 miles of the York River soon will be a “wild and scenic” destination after Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, secured federal protections in the government spending bill that passed Friday.

“A ‘Wild and Scenic’ designation for the York River is a vital step in permanently protecting the York River and ensuring access to clean water and a thriving working waterfront for generations to come,” Pingree said in a statement. “After working with the surrounding communities to complete this designation since my earliest days in Congress, I’m thrilled the provision was included as part of this year’s funding bill. With federal support, the York River, which has always been an incredible asset to the communities it runs through, will be a regional gem far into the future.”

A multiyear study released in 2020 by the National Park Service and the York River Study Committee concluded that the waterway and its tributaries were suitable for the designation. The wild and scenic rivers program was established by Congress in 1968 to protect free-flowing rivers that are deemed to have “outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values.”

York will 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 river and its watershed flow through York, Kittery, South Berwick and Eliot, but mostly 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 the harbor.

The York River and Smelt Brook estuary is one of the Gulf of Maine’s most pristine spots. Carey Kish photo

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 has it all: Diverse fish and wildlife habitats, estuarine and freshwater rivers and streams that meander unencumbered through a beautiful landscape on their way to the sea, a rich cultural history, and abundant opportunities for human use and enjoyment,” said Paul Dest, executive director of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve, one of the partners that has worked for 12 years exploring and then seeking designation for the river.

Pingree first introduced legislation to add the York River to the National Park Service’s list in 2019. The study grew out of legislation sponsored by Pingree that passed in 2014.

In 2018, the voters of York and Eliot overwhelmingly passed referendums to move forward with the designation, as did the town councils of Kittery and South Berwick.

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