WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAMS
Nestled in the Ozark Mountains, the Buffalo River begs to be experienced—and superintendent Kevin Cheri has made it his mission to make sure more people do so than ever before.
BY LINDSAY IRVIN
PHOTOS BY HATCH AND MAAS COLLECTIVE
Kevin Cheri is perhaps the biggest advocate for the Buffalo National River and its surrounding trails and wildlife—not just because he is the superintendent charged with protecting and maintaining it, or because his family frequently hikes and floats there, but because Kevin understands the river’s power to be an ambassador for the State of Arkansas. The mighty Buffalo lures thousands of residents for recreation and visitors for vacations each year, and regularly recruits newcomers to relocate to The Natural State.
Kevin himself is proof of this.
THE CALL OF THE WILD
Compelled by the power of the Buffalo, the New Orleans native has moved to Arkansas twice—once in 1978 for his first job and 29 years later for his current role.
Straight out of college, the Xavier University graduate began his career with the National Park Service at the Buffalo River as a park ranger intake trainee. “I spent two and a half years living in the park at Buffalo Point near Yellville,” he said, “but upon completion of my training, I was expected to move on.”
Kevin spent the next 37 years moving on, in fact. He found his second job, a district ranger position, at Canyonlands National Park near Moab, Utah. He met his wife Laura on the next ladder rung in 1988 at the Fort Davis National Historic Site in Fort Davis, Texas. The couple later deployed to west Texas’ Big Bend National Park and Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River, before eventually landing back in Kevin’s hometown for a few years at Louisiana’s Jean Lafitte National Historical Park & Preserve.
In 2007, after nearly three decades apart, the Buffalo beckoned him back.
Leaving yet another park post—he was superintendent of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area outside Atlanta, Georgia—Kevin took the helm of Arkansas’s beloved Buffalo and America’s first national river.
“My wife was ready to move,” Kevin said, “and because of my previous experience, I didn’t have to be sold on the beauty and amenities present in the Ozark Mountains.”
Son Cameron and daughters Breanna and Sabrina relocated with their parents to Harrison, where the National Park Service is headquartered, while their eldest daughter Nicole remained in Georgia to finish college.
Even though so much time had passed, the same charms still drew Kevin to the river and to Arkansas. “The Buffalo is special because of all it offers to anyone who comes to recreate or simply enjoy the vast beauty,” he said. “Unspoiled by human development, the river offers everyone the opportunity to experience the Ozarks their way. You can enjoy the resource in so many ways.
“The National Park Service mission ‘to preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of this and future generations’ is one of the primary reasons I am here,” Kevin said. “[The Buffalo] was my first permanent assignment with this noble agency and I am extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to return as the superintendent. This is my opportunity to give back to this park and area which was so good to me at the start of my career.”
LEADING THE CHARGE
Eight years in, the active 60 year old has already made noticeable improvements on the river. He’s established safer and more accessible trails—like the partially wheelchair accessible Lost Valley Trail and paved road to Steel Creek. He’s recruited funds from state and federal sources to build amenities that will attract more visitors to the park—like the funds to build natural-looking and user-friendly steps up to Eden Falls and the new Toney Bend Research Facility (in cooperation with Arkansas State University) coming soon to the park.
Kevin’s responsibilities not only improve the park, but do double duty in enriching the communities served by the park. Through his work, locally owned businesses are promoted, jobs are created and maintained and ultimately the economies of small towns like Ponca and Jasper are boosted.
“The difference between us and a lot of federal agencies is that we bring money back into the local community,” Kevin said. “Our camping fees go back into the park. The people who come here are spending money with the river concessionaires because the park exists… We bring over $50 million annually to the local region and support over 600 jobs within this region.
“The facts speak for themselves: Parks bring money to the local economy. So the dollars spent [on making park improvements] are dollars well spent.”
This is why Kevin’s job isn’t simply to keep the park clean and safe for recreationists—although the team of about 60 he manages help do just that. His goal is to somehow grow visitation every year by offering users a memorable experience and educating all Arkansans on the diverse recreation opportunities that exist on the Buffalo National River, all with his $6 million operating budget.
“Mother Nature has done fine on its own to make the Buffalo River great,” Kevin said. “It is up to me and my staff, as the key stewards of this resource, to work with all park users and stakeholders to minimize man’s impact while allowing for its safe use. We must do all we can to preserve America’s first national river for future generations.”
HOME SWEET HARRISON
In his spare time, Kevin also champions for Harrison, a city once considered to have a prejudiced and predominantly white population. It’s a cause close to his heart, having had a hand in breaking certain barriers there. “I was actually the first minority to work at the Buffalo National River, back in 1978,” he said. “Harrison didn’t have much diversity within its population in the past, which resulted in a negative reputation; but this is not what I discovered upon returning to Arkansas.
“There are many restaurants and businesses managed by or employing people of diverse backgrounds. The same applied to the region, where even the schools registered students of diverse backgrounds as well as numerous exchange students. I was at ease moving my family here.”
Kevin now works with the Harrison Community Task Force on Race Relations to make sure all Arkansans know Harrison as they do—as a welcoming Southern community with opportunities for all.
From Utah’s buttes and canyons to the Smoky Moutains of Tennessee, the Cheris have lived in diverse parts of the country—thus their opinions about Northwest Arkansas are not taken lightly. “We enjoy living in an area with four distinct seasons,” Kevin said.
“We enjoy the many friends we have made over the past eight years [and] the Southern way of life; people here are friendly. The cost of living is reasonable too,” he said.
Being within a two-hour drive from the state’s biggest cities and major airports is just another perk. “We have enjoyed visiting numerous natural, cultural and historical attractions in the state and look forward to seeing more,” Kevin said.