Defending paper in a digital age

From books to birth certificates to the U.S. mail, people are still intimately connected to paper products, and Donna Harman is committed to keeping their paper options alive.

“There are a lot of memories around things that touch paper,” said Harman, president and CEO of the American Forest and Paper Association (AF&PA), adding college diplomas, newspapers and marriage certificates to the list. 

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“The government recently discontinued savings bonds on paper,” she said. “Something is lost there. It’s more than just the dollars — it’s the act of giving, like between a grandparent and a grandchild.” 

As head of the AF&PA, Harman is the lead Washington advocate for an industry that nets nearly $200 billion annually. 

The 30-year Washington veteran sees her task as two-fold. 

Like other lobbyists, she works to ensure a feasible regulatory environment for her members — U.S. manufacturers of forest and paper goods, from plywood to disposable napkins to wrapping paper. 

But Harman also speaks for Americans with a desire to celebrate, study and communicate using paper products, despite the strong pull of electronic substitutes. 

“We’ve seen a rush to digitize,” Harman said in a recent interview, “but people’s lives are frequently documented on paper.

“You wouldn’t necessarily think of people having an emotional connection with paper, but a lot of public opinion research finds that that’s the case.” 

Harman first came to Washington as a college intern and later worked for a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, former Rep. Henson Moore (R-La.). 

The connection proved useful years later, when Moore recruited her as a vice president at the AF&PA, which he ran until 2006. 

Harman had lobbied in the meantime for Dow Chemical Co., forest products manufacturer Champion International, and International Paper. 

She described her approach as uniquely influenced by Moore, a pragmatic Republican who encouraged her to attend law school at night. 

“They say once you work for a member of Congress, you always work for that member of Congress, and that’s true,” Harman said. 

“For [Moore], bipartisanship was an important part of getting to the right solution … it’s the art of collaboration, when you find something in it for everyone.” 

Another key lesson she gained from Moore, she said, was the ability to distill a complicated issue.

Harman won plaudits for this skill after a recent battle with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over rules governing industrial boilers. 

The original draft of the boiler rules alarmed industry with its breadth. Opposing studies suggested that the regulations, designed to cut toxic air pollution, would prompt layoffs and incur massive bills. 

Together with other groups, the AF&PA mounted an advocacy campaign that spanned two sessions of Congress. 

The effort included events on Capitol Hill and in congressional districts. 

Ultimately, the EPA softened the rules and gave companies more time to comply, a win for the AF&PA and other manufacturing groups. 

Lobbyist peers and staffers on Capitol Hill all praised Harman for her thoughtfulness, concision and extensive preparation during the fight. 

“She was very good at helping us understand what the impact of those rules would be, [and] how they would affect the jobs and the people in that industry,” said Gary Andres, staff director with the House Energy and Commerce Committee. 

In 2011, long before the rules were modified, the GOP-led House passed a bill to delay their implementation. 

Andres said Harman’s information made the difference, and later influenced the EPA’s step back. 

“What makes Donna most effective is that she knows the kinds of things that we need to know on the Hill,” Andres said. “She’s got great facts, great figures.” 

The AF&PA has about 120 member companies and associations, 65 staff and several full-time lobbyists under Harman’s direction. 

Its latest concern is the flailing U.S Postal Service’s push to end Saturday delivery of letters.

Harman said the decision will affect customers, and could potentially hit member companies’ bottom lines. 

“There were many other things that the Postal Service could and should do before they take that step,” she said. “We believe they will lose needed revenue by taking away customers’ opportunity to use the service.” 

The issue also gets back to what the paper industry sees as its unique contribution to American life. 

“There is a large number of people across the country without access to electronic forms of communication, either from lack of Internet, lack of equipment, or just out of preference,” Harman said. 

“We support these people. We support all-of-the-above options for communication.” 

In the coming year, the AF&PA will confront new EPA rule-making on the carbon neutrality of biomass, including forest residues, which are used to fire pulp and paper mills. 

The forthcoming regulations will be a major issue for the group. 

“I think [regulators] understand that the stakes are pretty high here,” Harman said. “Environmentally, it’s important that they get this one right, and they have to do it in a way that industry can buy into.” 

Cal Dooley, who leads the American Chemistry Council and has partnered with the AF&PA CEO, said Harman approaches regulatory battles with openness and an important degree of flexibility.

“In the job that Donna does, you’re going to be quickly discounted if you are just coming in and opposing a regulation when you meet with the EPA or the administration,” Dooley said. 

“You have to come in and state your concerns but then demonstrate that there is a path that will be consistent with an environmental objective.” 

Harman herself said the task is finding the “sweet spot” between what’s “practical, doable and meets a societal need.” 

“The regulatory issues are front and center for our members,” she said. “Done in the wrong way, the industry won’t be able to cope.”