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O’Rourke helps lead Rangeland Congress in Argentina

Con Marshall
Chadron State College
Jim O'Rourke.

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When Jim O’Rourke presented a paper at the International Rangeland Congress in 1978, he never anticipated that some day he would be devoting so much of his time and energy to leadership roles in the organization. Besides, there were regulations that would protect him and others from becoming too overloaded. Eight years was the limit for serving on the “Continuing Committee,” or the board of directors.

The former Chadron State College professor was elected to that committee in 1995. But 16 years later, he’s still deeply involved in making things happen with the Rangeland Congress, which as the name suggests, has members around the world.

O’Rourke returned last Wednesday from Argentina, where he spent three weeks helping make the convention, which had nearly 500 delegates, go smoothly. He wasn’t supposed to be in charge this time, but health problems involving two of the organization’s leaders rushed him back into action.

“Things went a lot different than I had planned,” O’Rourke said Monday. “I was supposed to go mostly for the fun of it, attend some of the sessions and learn a little something, go out to dinner with old friends and chat with people in the hallways. But that wasn’t the way it worked. Of course, I’m glad I could help.”

O’Rourke was alerted in early March that he wasn’t going to have a leisurely convention when the person, who lives in India and had succeeded him as international president three years ago, sent an e-mail saying he wouldn’t be able to attend because his mother-in-law, who lives in Great Britain, was gravely ill. Could O’Rourke help the vice president conduct the convention?

About a week later, the organization’s “secretariat,” as he’s known, notified O’Rourke that he had contracted a rare form of liver cancer and could not attend. Could O’Rourke take the minutes, keep track of the proceedings, give some reports and pass out materials?

O’Rourke knew then he would be extra busy. However, since he was the one who had gotten Argentina involved in the Rangeland Congress and he had made three trips to the South American country to help plan the convention, it was full speed ahead.

This was O’Rourke’s seventh International Rangeland Congress meeting. They are supposed to be every four years but sometimes the schedule gets skewed. At the first one in 1978 in Denver, he gave a program on the research he’d conducted for his doctoral dissertation. He also attended the second meeting in Australia in 1984, but missed the ones in India in 1988 while he was working in Nigeria and in France in 1991, three years after he joined the Chadron State faculty.

The 1995 convention was in Salt Lake City. O’Rourke served on the planning committee for it and was elected one of the two representatives from North America on the continuing committee. In 1999, O’Rourke and his wife, Lora, a range conservationist for the Pine Ridge District of the Nebraska National Forest, attended the convention in Townsville, Australia.

He went again in 2003, this time to Dublin, South Africa. His eight years on the continuing committee were up and he would be fancy free again, he thought.

It didn’t work out that way. The other North American representative was also due to leave the committee and O’Rourke was urged to accept another four-year stint. After he agreed to the extension, he was elected the international president. That meant he would be in charge of the convention in 2008, which was to be at Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, China.

Argentina formed its own range management organization in the early 2000s after O’Rourke urged Israel Feldman, a range specialist from that country, to take that route rather than become a section of the Society for Range Management. Once Feldman and a few associates did that, O’Rourke convinced them it would strengthen their group if they hosted the next international convention because lots of help would be needed.

“It worked that way, too,” O’Rourke explained. “They have way more people involved now, particularly from the universities. But as soon as it was decided the next convention would be in Argentina, they told me I had to come and help them get organized.”

O’Rourke also did lots of “behind the scenes” work for the convention in Argentina. He raised $180,000, mostly from agencies in Washington, D.C., $30,000 from France and obtained another $50,000 from the World Bank, to help pay the way for the convention speakers. The Argentines also raised $110,000 in their own country to help cover the costs.

O’Rourke’s recent trip to Argentina was his fourth. He said while the convention, which was in Argentina’s second largest city, Rosario, went smoothly, another highlight was the tour prior to the convention to Abra Pampa, a high desert and forested area some 12,000 feet in elevation in the northwestern part of the nation next to Bolivia and Chile.

He called it a “beautiful, high, flat grassland” where some cattle are pastured, but many more wild llamas and vicuna, a llama-like animal, roam. While the llamas have wool, the vicuna has long hair that is extremely valuable.

“They had a ball of raw hair that weighed about two pounds and was priced at $400,” O’Rourke said. “These animals are really wild, but they round them up to shear them. That must get pretty exciting.”

The hair is used to make clothing, he said.

O’Rourke said most of the ranches belong to wealthy absentee landowners who hire local people to do the work. He also noted the county has few feedlots and a majority of the cattle run on grass for three or four years before they are slaughtered. He said the meat is “fantastic.”

“The tours really fascinate me,” O’Rourke said. “When Lora and I went to Australia in 1999, we traveled with the group for about a week and then rented a vehicle and saw a lot more of the country. It was great.”

While he was in charge of the 2008 convention in Inner Mongolia, O’Rourke was befriended by range leaders from nearby Outer Mongolia, an independent country that was a part of the Soviet Union until the Iron Curtain broke up in 1990. He is now serving as a rangeland consultant for that country.

In May, O’Rourke will spend three weeks working in Mongolia. He said he has suggested that it host the 2019 Rangeland Congress convention for the same reasons that he urged Argentina to do that.

O’Rourke admits that he’s had some frustrations while being so heavily engaged in rangeland matters. Besides his affiliation with the Rangeland Congress, he was president of the Society for Range Management, comprised primarily of Americans, in 2001 and hasn’t missed and SRM annual meetings since 1978. However, he said the rewards far outweigh the frustrations.

“Getting to travel so much and making so many friends from around the world are the highlights,” he said. “It never would have happened if I hadn’t become involved and volunteered to help when I was younger. I try to impress this on today’s students. I tell them there are a lot of opportunities waiting for them if they’ll make the first moves.”

As a result of his involvement in Inner Mongolia in China, in 2010 he and his wife Lora and their two children Seth and Shannon toured at country for two weeks with all expenses paid by the Chinese Grassland Society.

However, O’Rourke admits he’s ready to take a break from the Rangeland Congress convention scene for a while. He grinned while noting that if people from India, where the 2015 convention is scheduled, start contacting him, he may disconnect his telephone and his computer.

He also emphasized that he owes a big debt of gratitude to Chadron State College. While he’s never received college funds to attend international conventions, he said having an office at CSC and use of the equipment was invaluable.

When Jim O’Rourke presented a paper at the International Rangeland Congress in 1978, he never anticipated that some day he would be devoting so much of his time and energy to leadership roles in the organization. Besides, there were regulations that would protect him and others from becoming too overloaded. Eight years was the limit for serving on the “Continuing Committee,” or the board of directors.

The former Chadron State College professor was elected to that committee in 1995. But 16 years later, he’s still deeply involved in making things happen with the Rangeland Congress, which as the name suggests, has members around the world.

O’Rourke returned last Wednesday from Argentina, where he spent three weeks helping make the convention, which had nearly 500 delegates, go smoothly. He wasn’t supposed to be in charge this time, but health problems involving two of the organization’s leaders rushed him back into action.

“Things went a lot different than I had planned,” O’Rourke said Monday. “I was supposed to go mostly for the fun of it, attend some of the sessions and learn a little something, go out to dinner with old friends and chat with people in the hallways. But that wasn’t the way it worked. Of course, I’m glad I could help.”

O’Rourke was alerted in early March that he wasn’t going to have a leisurely convention when the person, who lives in India and had succeeded him as international president three years ago, sent an e-mail saying he wouldn’t be able to attend because his mother-in-law, who lives in Great Britain, was gravely ill. Could O’Rourke help the vice president conduct the convention?

About a week later, the organization’s “secretariat,” as he’s known, notified O’Rourke that he had contracted a rare form of liver cancer and could not attend. Could O’Rourke take the minutes, keep track of the proceedings, give some reports and pass out materials?

O’Rourke knew then he would be extra busy. However, since he was the one who had gotten Argentina involved in the Rangeland Congress and he had made three trips to the South American country to help plan the convention, it was full speed ahead.

This was O’Rourke’s seventh International Rangeland Congress meeting. They are supposed to be every four years but sometimes the schedule gets skewed. At the first one in 1978 in Denver, he gave a program on the research he’d conducted for his doctoral dissertation. He also attended the second meeting in Australia in 1984, but missed the ones in India in 1988 while he was working in Nigeria and in France in 1991, three years after he joined the Chadron State faculty.

The 1995 convention was in Salt Lake City. O’Rourke served on the planning committee for it and was elected one of the two representatives from North America on the continuing committee. In 1999, O’Rourke and his wife, Lora, a range conservationist for the Pine Ridge District of the Nebraska National Forest, attended the convention in Townsville, Australia.

He went again in 2003, this time to Dublin, South Africa. His eight years on the continuing committee were up and he would be fancy free again, he thought.

It didn’t work out that way. The other North American representative was also due to leave the committee and O’Rourke was urged to accept another four-year stint. After he agreed to the extension, he was elected the international president. That meant he would be in charge of the convention in 2008, which was to be at Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, China.

Argentina formed its own range management organization in the early 2000s after O’Rourke urged Israel Feldman, a range specialist from that country, to take that route rather than become a section of the Society for Range Management. Once Feldman and a few associates did that, O’Rourke convinced them it would strengthen their group if they hosted the next international convention because lots of help would be needed.

“It worked that way, too,” O’Rourke explained. “They have way more people involved now, particularly from the universities. But as soon as it was decided the next convention would be in Argentina, they told me I had to come and help them get organized.”

O’Rourke also did lots of “behind the scenes” work for the convention in Argentina. He raised $180,000, mostly from agencies in Washington, D.C., $30,000 from France and obtained another $50,000 from the World Bank, to help pay the way for the convention speakers. The Argentines also raised $110,000 in their own country to help cover the costs.

O’Rourke’s recent trip to Argentina was his fourth. He said while the convention, which was in Argentina’s second largest city, Rosario, went smoothly, another highlight was the tour prior to the convention to Abra Pampa, a high desert and forested area some 12,000 feet in elevation in the northwestern part of the nation next to Bolivia and Chile.

He called it a “beautiful, high, flat grassland” where some cattle are pastured, but many more wild llamas and vicuna, a llama-like animal, roam. While the llamas have wool, the vicuna has long hair that is extremely valuable.

“They had a ball of raw hair that weighed about two pounds and was priced at $400,” O’Rourke said. “These animals are really wild, but they round them up to shear them. That must get pretty exciting.”

The hair is used to make clothing, he said.

O’Rourke said most of the ranches belong to wealthy absentee landowners who hire local people to do the work. He also noted the county has few feedlots and a majority of the cattle run on grass for three or four years before they are slaughtered. He said the meat is “fantastic.”

“The tours really fascinate me,” O’Rourke said. “When Lora and I went to Australia in 1999, we traveled with the group for about a week and then rented a vehicle and saw a lot more of the country. It was great.”

While he was in charge of the 2008 convention in Inner Mongolia, O’Rourke was befriended by range leaders from nearby Outer Mongolia, an independent country that was a part of the Soviet Union until the Iron Curtain broke up in 1990. He is now serving as a rangeland consultant for that country.

In May, O’Rourke will spend three weeks working in Mongolia. He said he has suggested that it host the 2019 Rangeland Congress convention for the same reasons that he urged Argentina to do that.

O’Rourke admits that he’s had some frustrations while being so heavily engaged in rangeland matters. Besides his affiliation with the Rangeland Congress, he was president of the Society for Range Management, comprised primarily of Americans, in 2001 and hasn’t missed and SRM annual meetings since 1978. However, he said the rewards far outweigh the frustrations.

“Getting to travel so much and making so many friends from around the world are the highlights,” he said. “It never would have happened if I hadn’t become involved and volunteered to help when I was younger. I try to impress this on today’s students. I tell them there are a lot of opportunities waiting for them if they’ll make the first moves.”

As a result of his involvement in Inner Mongolia in China, in 2010 he and his wife Lora and their two children Seth and Shannon toured at country for two weeks with all expenses paid by the Chinese Grassland Society.

However, O’Rourke admits he’s ready to take a break from the Rangeland Congress convention scene for a while. He grinned while noting that if people from India, where the 2015 convention is scheduled, start contacting him, he may disconnect his telephone and his computer.

He also emphasized that he owes a big debt of gratitude to Chadron State College. While he’s never received college funds to attend international conventions, he said having an office at CSC and use of the equipment was invaluable.


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