YORK — Local stakeholders and Maine legislators are lining up to support a bill in Congress that would call on the National Park Service to study whether the York River qualifies as a Wild and Scenic Partnership River. A preliminary survey by the park service seems to indicate that the river could qualify for the designation, which would provide special protection for the waterways from some forms of development that might affect the river.

While Rep. Chellie Pingree has introduced a similar bill in the past that failed to be heard in the Senate after passing in the House of Representatives, the most recent incarnation of the bill has passed in the House and has been taken up in the Senate by Sen. Angus King.

The push for the study is helping call attention to the ecological and cultural value of the York River, which is only now beginning to get its due as an ecological gem, says Doreen McGillis, executive director of the York Land Trust. Given that York is technically in the development sphere of the Boston Metro area, it’s surprising that the river still is relatively undeveloped, she said. Private landowners and local and statewide preservation organizations have effectively partnered to leave large tracts of the river untouched.

“What is really remarkable about this system is that it is still so intact and it is so close to the major population centers,” McGillis said.

Ecologists have begun to understand the value of the York River ecosystem as a nursery for the Gulf of Maine. Almost every fish species found in the Gulf of Maine has also been found in the river, and there are countless important bird species spotted near the river, as well, McGillis said.

A Wild and Scenic Partnership River study and designation would provide ecological groups like the York Land Trust better data to argue for preservation of the river’s ecosystem, she said.

“Having really up-to-date research and information is vital for our efforts,” McGillis said.

The initial survey found that the river seems to meet the criteria for inclusion into the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The survey found that sections of the river “exhibit free-flowing character and noteworthy natural, cultural and recreational” resources. In addition, the survey found there was significant local support for the designation.

Local support for the designation is an important consideration for this designation, said Willy Ritch, a spokesman for Pingree. He’s found strong support for the study among local officials and non-profit groups.

“To be honest, I haven’t heard anybody say anything negative about it,” Ritch said.  

A Wild and Scenic River System designation is much less restrictive than some other federal natural reserve designations, and the study would only go forward with local support, Ritch said.

“It only gets submitted with community support and community input,” he said.

“This is a very cooperative, grassroots effort.”

Even though there is strong community support, and little controversy surrounding the bill, there is no guarantee that it will make it through Congress before the end of the legislative session. Still, Ritch and others are confident that the study will eventually pass both chambers of Congress.