It Takes a Village
The story of a hometown river threatened by development — and the communities that stepped up to protect it.
Sometimes you don’t know you want to protect something until you’re threatened with losing it. That was the case for communities of southern Maine, where the York River and its tributaries meander through the communities of York, Kittery, Eliot, and South Berwick, feeding rich salt marshes and hardwood forests that blanket the landscape between the hills and the coastline.
For many, the river was a source of enjoyment. It was a fun afternoon canoe outing during migratory bird season. It was nice to have.
But as metropolitan Boston has grown, city dwellers have moved up the coast in search of access to the outdoors and a more affordable lifestyle. Coastal southern Maine now faces the highest development pressure in the state. And that means more buildings, more pavement, and more yards overtaking and fragmenting areas that used to be forest and community greenspaces fed by the York River.
Concerned that development would damage the character of the region and the river’s health, all four York watershed communities worked with Congress and the National Park Service to establish a local committee to explore possible protection for the river under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
Soon, the communities were learning about water quality, species that live in or beside the river, impacts of climate change on the watershed, Indigenous history going back 3,000 years, and colonial history. Their interest was sparked — and so was their passion to protect the York for current and future generations.
The York River carries enormous regional significance. It is home to nationally recognized historic sites and more endangered and threatened species than any other area in the state. The watershed provides clean drinking water to local communities and to the nearby Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, which employs thousands of area residents. And the river’s green spaces act as a natural buffer to the impacts of a warming climate, protecting against storm surges, rising sea levels, and nor’easters that erode the shorelines.
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For three years, the York River Wild and Scenic Study Committee worked to understand why its watershed deserves Wild and Scenic protection. The committee held 60 public meetings and river walks to educate residents about the resource in their backyard. In the end, residents of York, Eliot, South Berwick, and Kittery were convinced: When asked whether they supported formally designating 30.8 miles of the York and its tributaries as Wild and Scenic, residents overwhelmingly answered “yes.”
The National Park Service sent the York River Wild and Scenic Study Committee’s report to Congress, and legislation is making its way through the congressional approval process. It has bipartisan support.
A Wild and Scenic York River would be a partnership between the community and the federal government, with the communities running the show.
In the case of the York and other Partnership Wild and Scenic Rivers, designation will protect these nationally significant rivers from dams or other federally permitted projects that would pollute, confine, or threaten the river. For these partnership rivers, local governments continue their responsibility for managing river use and activities on private lands along the river through local ordinances, zoning, and regulations. The role of the National Park Service is to prevent any new dams on the river and to provide technical and financial support to the local stewardship group working to protect and restore the river.
Community management is a model that American Rivers believes is one of the most sustainable ways to provide long-term protection for rivers that flow through private lands. The process creates local support that is essential for conservation efforts to take hold and last. Partnership Wild and Scenic River designations put the power in the hands of local residents. That’s why American Rivers co-founded the Wild and Scenic Rivers Coalition, an alliance of more than 60 river groups nationwide that helps support nascent community groups that are exploring river protection options for their favorite local rivers.
If the river movement is to protect 1 million miles of rivers in the coming decade, we’ll need to employ all of the tools in our toolkit. Local leaders and communities like those on the York River can play a powerful role by embracing the Partnership Wild and Scenic River model. American Rivers and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Coalition will be there to help advise them and ultimately build momentum in the halls of Congress for river protection bills like the York. As we help communities grow on-the-ground support, we will also learn from them as they mount their own campaigns. Together, we can build a movement of river champions working hand in hand to protect our favorite rivers.
Update: The York River received protection as a Partnership Wild and Scenic River as part of the $1.7 trillion spending bill passed in December 2022. We congratulate the York River Wild and Scenic Study Committee and all of the individuals involved in protecting this beautiful, important waterway.