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Dennis Roper
Dennis Roper

Friend to the Eskimos

Dennis Roper works to better lives
on Alaskan frontier

By Janice Wisner

UW-Eau Claire alumnus Dennis Roper set out from Eau Claire with his wife and their two little girls in March 1972 in pursuit of the Alaskan Dream. The 26-year-old had just earned a business degree from the university and went looking for a new life in what was then America's last frontier.

Fueled by a love of adventure and a passion for hunting and fishing, his odyssey eventually took him to the top of the world, where he would spend 27 years working for the Inupiat Eskimo people and dealing with issues of worldwide importance.

In part, Roper was in the right place at the right time. Just three years before he left Eau Claire, the state of Alaska, during an auction in Anchorage, had raffled off oil rights on the Arctic Ocean for $900 million. Suddenly the state's 280,000 residents were richer than anyone could possibly imagine, and nobody was quite sure what to do with the money.

Nowhere was this more true than on the northernmost edge of the state, home of the Inupiat Eskimos and the oil fields spreading out from Prudhoe Bay. The North Slope Borough, which is the largest land-based municipality in the United States, is about the size of Minnesota, with a population of 7,200 people and a $200 million plus budget. Until the discovery of oil, the Inupiat Eskimos lived much as they had for hundreds of years. They had an intimate knowledge of their environment, and people, not things, were the crucial resource. However, dealing with large money issues was new to their culture and brought many challenges.

In 1980 the Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corp. hired Roper, a small business tax consultant, to reconstruct the financial records of the village construction company.

"They were in trouble financially and with the IRS," Roper said.

When the job was completed, the company offered him the position of general manager.

Roper secured a $7 million line of credit and a $24 million bonding package. He hired project managers and engineers who knew how to build things. Five years later the company, which made its first inroads specializing in water and sewer development within the NSB, had substantial retained earnings and was providing dividends to its share-holders.

"The timing was right," Roper said. "All they had was a 'honey bucket' sanitary system. We started building the utility portion of water and sewer service, which helped bring the Inupiat into the 20th century."

Roper left the company in 1985 and came home to Eau Claire for a vacation. While playing golf at the Princeton Valley Golf Course, he was pulled off the third hole by an emergency phone call from Barrow. It was the borough's new mayor, George Ahmaogak, whose campaign he had managed.

"He wanted me to come back to Alaska, come up to Barrow and work in government affairs," Roper said. "I told him that I didn't know anything about government affairs. He said that since becoming mayor he was surrounded by friends, but none of them was a friend before he became mayor.

"I've always carried that statement with me," said Roper, who went back to Alaska and went to work for Ahmaogak, who had run as a reform candidate, pledging to make reforms in the operation of the borough's affairs.

One of his biggest challenges was breaking the news to his teenage daughter, Nicole, that they were moving to Barrow, where the ice doesn't break up until June or July. Since his 1975 divorce, Roper had been a bachelor father to his two daughters. By then his older daughter, Denise, was working in Anchorage, but Nicole was still at home.

"At first she said no way, but she agreed and spent four years at the Barrow high school where she was salutatorian," he said.

She went on to the University of Alaska Fairbanks and today is an elementary teacher in Sitka. Her sister lives and works in Eagle River, Alaska.

Roper started his new job in September 1985. For Ahmaogak's five terms as well as 15 months with the current mayor, Edward Itta, he served as a key adviser on state and federal issues and oil industry relations. He coordinated the North Slope Borough's defense against numerous legislative attempts to siphon local property tax revenues.

"The range of issues they deal with (subsistence whaling, oil and gas development - including the Arctic Refuge - Native rights, critical habitat and others) is national and international in scope, which is surprising given their small population and remote location," said David Harding, who provides public relations services to the NSB.

"I've worked closely with Dennis," Harding said. "I have followed him around in D.C. and Juneau where I've gotten a pretty close look at his political skills and his extensive network of contacts. He's tremendously savvy about how people operate and how things get done in the rarefied atmosphere of state and federal politics."

Roper admits that at first he was a fish out of water and made his share of mistakes. Early on he found himself in the middle of a controversy involving a campaign contribution and ended up paying a fine for his part in how the contribution was distributed.

"No one goes into the political world like I did and is immediately effective," he said. "It was a real learning process. In the world of politics you must make sure you follow the rules in any fundraising activities."

Roper's impact on the NSB and its residents has been tremendous, according to Ahmaogak.

"He is a very capable type of a person, he can wheel and deal," the former mayor said. "He gets along well with persons who are running for public office and finds out what exactly the candidates' platforms and issues are. The amount of assistance which the North Slope Borough now enjoys will last for our children and grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren."

Most recently Roper has been the NSB's lead negotiator in a proposed $20 billion to $27 billion natural gas pipeline contract. When the contract is finally worked out and ratified by the Legislature, he says it will be the largest energy construction project ever and the NSB's financial backbone for the next 35 years.

Harding says Roper has brought a political sophistication to the borough's relationships with the outside world.

"Some people think he's too political, and very few realize exactly how much he has accomplished in terms of bringing in outside dollars and helping the borough strike the right political balance between street fighting and rubbing elbows," Harding said.

An attorney in the Washington, D.C., law firm that represents the NSB on federal government affairs attributes Roper's success to his deep understanding of political relationships and issues.

"He knows who to talk with, to assist him on various issues, and he knows how to carefully approach issues to avoid harming important relationships," said Jaeleen Kookesh Araujo. "He cares very deeply about the people he represents."

Roper credits the education he received at UW-Eau Claire for preparing him to succeed in business and live a well-rounded life.

"Hitting Alaska in 1972 with a bachelor's degree was a big deal," he said. "Within 14 days I had three job offers. Accounting turned out to be my most important skill. In those days if you could post a general ledger, you were hired."

In particular he remembers lectures by Bill Proctor, a part-time professor who worked as a negotiator for Uniroyal.

"What grabbed me is that he never used notes and never repeated himself," Roper said. "He always emphasized in negotiating how important it is to see the other person's perspective. He said life and politics are about compromise. When I testify before the U.S. Congress, the state Legislature or the borough, I try to make my deliveries from the heart and put a personal touch on them. That was Proctor's style, and it stuck with me."

Last November Roper announced his retirement.

"I've loved and enjoyed Alaska and have been able to travel throughout the state," he said. "I've seen the beauty, the mountains, forests, water and wildlife. I've been a fishing guide and hunted blacktail deer, moose and caribou. It's been quite a ride."

Janice Wisner is a writer for the UW-Eau Claire News Bureau.

 

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