YORK, Maine — Paul Dest, the director of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve, has been working for the past six years on plans to protect the York River. And during that time, he said, he has come to realize what a gem it is.

“People look at southern Maine and think the spectacular resources of Maine lie elsewhere,” he said. “But the York River is an example of a stunning natural and cultural resource that, to me, equals rivers up and down the East Coast.”

And now, the protection of the river has come center stage as a group of citizens from not only York, but Eliot, Kittery and South Berwick, embark on a three-year federally funded comprehensive study of the river that is expected to guide the work of future generations.

The York River Study Committee will begin meeting next month, under the auspices of the National Park Service Wild and Scenic Partnership Program. The group is expected to review existing studies, commission additional studies if needed and provide a comprehensive report by the fall of 2018.

Areas to be included for review include natural resources, historical and cultural resources, recreational uses, agricultural and forestry resources and economic impact.

Funding for the study came from Congress, through bills introduced by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine. The study will determine if the river meets the criteria to be designated as a federally protected Wild and Scenic River. Even if it meets the criteria, local citizens would have to vote in favor of the designation, and there would need to be separate Congressional action.

Pingree’s original bill sought $500,000 for the study, which was pared down to $300,000 by the time it hit the Senate. Dest said it appears now that funding will come in at $180,000, in part because two other New England rivers were also approved in the federal budget for study.

“That has a tendency to dilute funding,” said Dest. He said, as a result, the committee may not be able to complete as many in-depth studies as he would like to see. But former river study committees with which he’s been in contact have been able to complete “a very good document with similar levels of funding.”

Study committee member Charles Ott, of York, who lives on York River tributary Smelt Brook, said some of the studies of the York River that the committee will amass are a decade old or more. For instance, a fish study was conducted 12 years ago that indicated 28 species of fish were found in the river. But it hasn’t been updated since.

“We need accurate information in order to make good decisions, and this study will help us do that,” he said. As a result, the study alone will have great merit for the towns. But he looks at the situation through a wider lens, saying he hopes the committee is able to draw residents into the process through a series of public meetings.

“We want to always keep in mind that the plan is in and of itself going to be very valuable, but that’s not the end of the effort. The end of the effort will be when the community is involved in its management,” he said. “We want to really vet all the comments people might have and weigh them openly and thoroughly.”

He said the committee’s first order of business will be to hire a coordinator who will ferret out existing studies in all areas to be reviewed and guide the committee as it determines whether or not to commission further work. The committee will also receive input from ex officio members Dest, Jamie Fosberg of the National Park Service, and representatives of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and Maine Department of Transportation.

“It’s such an important community resource,” said committee member Karen Arsenault, of York. “When there is a clean river, then there is a clean ecosystem going into the Gulf of Maine. What could be more important than that?”

The members of the York River Study Committee are, from York, Karen Arsenault, Georgia Bennett, Cindy Donnell, Tom Kerns, Joan LeBlanc, Charles Ott, Stephen Pelletier and Beth Walters; from Eliot, Stefan Claesson; and from Kittery, Judy Spiller. A representative from South Berwick is to be named.

The members of the Board of Advisors are Salem State University history professor Emerson Baker, York; York Conservation Commission member Priscilla Cookson; York Rivers Association founder Carol Donnelly; Tim Ellis of Ellis Insurance Agency, York; Great Works Regional Land Trust member Jennifer Fox, Eliot; recreational fisherman Dave Gittens, York; York River land owner Trenor Goodell, York; George Marshall Store curator Mary Harding, York; State Rep. Patricia Hymanson, D-York; Eliot selectman John Murphy; Eldredge Hardware manager Dan Remick, York; former legislator and author Neil Rolde, York; York Conservation Commission member Paula Sewall; former Kittery Land Trust member John Viele; Mount Agamenticus to the Sea coordinator Karen Young, Kittery.