Niagara Hydroelectric Power Plant Hosts Annual Wildlife Festival

Aspiring entrepreneurs have tried to capture the raw power of Niagara Falls since the late 1800s and, in the process, helped develop the science behind low-cost, reliable hydroelectricity. The Gaskill Flouring Mill, built in 1874, was the first user of a hydraulic canal at the High Banks. In 1881, Jacob Schoellkopf offered water power from his mechanical turbines to power a generator developed by Charles Brush to run electric lights. This 2,725-horsepower facility was one of the first hydroelectric stations in the world.

Liberty, a bald eagle, is a feature of the presentations made by Paul Schnell with the Institute for Environmental Learning at the New York Power Authority's annual Wildlife Festival.
Liberty, a bald eagle, is a feature of the presentations made by Paul Schnell with the Institute for Environmental Learning at the New York Power Authority’s annual Wildlife Festival.

Niagara Falls was a bustling city as businesses and manufacturers were lured by readily available low-cost power. In 1909, the U.S. and Canada signed a boundary waters treaty to settle disputes regarding use of international waterways. By 1950, a new agreement struck the balance between environmental concerns and the demand for power at Niagara Falls. It set a minimum flow of water over the brink during tourist season and allows use of the rest of the available water by Canadian and U.S. hydropower producers. This agreement was intended to settle disputes between the multiple hydro projects using water from the falls at that time, as well as serve future developers.

Against this backdrop, the New York Power Authority (NYPA) developed the largest hydroelectric facility of its kind, still the largest in the state: the 2,441-MW Niagara Hydroelectric Power Plant, between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario in Niagara County, N.Y. Completed in 1959, it diverts water from the Niagara River 2.6 miles upstream of Niagara Falls and releases it back to the river about 5 miles downstream of the falls. The project includes the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant and the Lewiston Pump-Generating Plant.

Today, thousands of jobs across the state depend on the low-cost hydropower this plant produces, all while NYPA balances the need for beauty and power. Even during planning and construction of the Niagara plant, aesthetics were a major focus. “Throughout its history, the New York Power Authority has integrated environmental considerations into its operations and community activities,” NYPA Senior Vice President of Power Supply Joseph Kessler said.

But of all the activities NYPA undertakes to improve water quality and protect and enhance fish and terrestrial resources, it’s an annual festival that drives home the point for thousands of outdoor enthusiasts and their families. NYPA teams with the Niagara County Federation of Conservation Clubs to host the Wildlife Festival, which began in 1984 as a series of tabletop exhibits in recognition of National Hunting and Fishing Day and has grown into one of the premiere attractions on the western New York fall calendar.

Many primates are featured by the Primate Sanctuary, a non-profit organization that has participated in the New York Power Authority's annual Wildlife Festival for 25 years.
Many primates are featured by the Primate Sanctuary, a non-profit organization that has participated in the New York Power Authority’s annual Wildlife Festival for 25 years.

Hosting the festival

The Wildlife Festival is spread over two days in the fall, with more than 50 environmental exhibitors, outdoor educators and wildlife rehabilitators participating and over 15,000 attendees. It all takes place on the grounds of the Niagara plant’s visitor center – the Power Vista – in Lewiston. Admission and parking are free.

“The Wildlife Festival is representative of the importance the power authority places on the environment,” NYPA’s Niagara Regional Manager Harry Francois said. “NYPA is working on a number of habitat improvement projects, including restoration of marshes and wetlands on several islands in the Niagara River, control of invasive species in local marshes, development of nesting sites for the osprey and common tern, and installation of structures on the bottom of the river, which will provide shelter for fish, such as the muskellunge, northern pike, walleye, and largemouth and smallmouth bass.”

Visitors to the festival learn how they can make a difference in our environment and improve our planet for wildlife and our neighbors. Bill Hilts is a noted outdoor writer and promotes the outstanding fishing opportunities in western New York for the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation. Following in his father Bill Sr.’s footsteps, the duo has been involved since the start of the festival. Bill Jr. coordinates a festival kids fishing derby using the NYPA-developed fishing sites.

“It’s exciting to see the Wildlife Festival educate so many people to different aspects of the great outdoors, such as fishing. We often encounter kids and adults that never would be exposed to these activities otherwise,” Hilts said. “The Wildlife Festival helps create a better awareness for the benefits of nature and our surrounding natural resources. With a focus on the kids, its helps educate the next generation of stewards for the environment.”

There are also plenty of other hands-on experiences that entice sportsmen of all ages and abilities, including crossbow or standard bow and arrow shooting and air rifle practice.

“The Wildlife Festival is the largest single weekend venue in the state where the public can enjoy programs, displays and interactive exhibits that educate and entertain visitors on the importance of wildlife, habitat preservation and the important role of sportswomen and sportsmen in conservation in the 21st century,” said exhibitor Paul Schnell of the Institute for Environmental Learning. Schnell brings along Liberty, a bald eagle, as a feature of his presentations.

As they walk the grounds, visitors can feel the pelts of wild animals and see live ones (from a safe distance). Younger guests enjoy a scavenger hunt and craft activities. Brownies, Cub Scouts, and Boy and Girl Scouts can earn a Wildlife Festival badge by sampling all the excitement of the festival. Other annual favorites include Jeff Musial of Nickel City Reptiles and Exotics, who has also showcased his collection on late night television shows, such as Jimmy Kimmel Live.

Many of Carmen Presti’s featured primates at the Wildlife Festival have also guest starred in major motion pictures and television shows. The Primate Sanctuary, a non-profit organization, has participated in the wildlife festival for 25 years. “We watched it grow from a few hundred to more than 25,000 spectators. This is our biggest event of the year, and it has helped the sanctuary to educate the public on primates and raise much-needed funds for our mission,” Presti said.

Presentations by environmental educators are stacked across the weekend schedule. A wide variety of topics are covered, from the habits of birds of prey to natural resource conservation, hunting and fishing instruction. Visitors also learn more about the traditions of Native Americans by viewing Iroquois dancers from the Tuscarora Indian reservation, which abuts the project’s reservoir.

Local non-profit groups, such as the Niagara Police Athletic League, also benefit from the festival. They operate food concessions that cater to thousands of hungry families.

The Wildlife Festival also draws visitors inside the visitor’s center to sample the more than 50 interactive exhibits about hydroelectricity and the historic role it has played on the Niagara frontier. There they can also enjoy the breathtaking view of the Niagara River gorge from the observation deck perched 350 feet above the fast-moving currents.

Staff at all levels of NYPA are involved in the planning and execution of the festival. Duties fall heaviest on the community relations staff, with substantial support from electrical and general maintenance and project security. The festival brings people to the Power Vista to learn more about NYPA, the Niagara Hydroelectric Power Plant, energy efficiency, and NYPA’s commitment to the environment.

– By Lou Paonessa, director of community affairs, New York Power Authority

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