Maya van Rossum was one of those kids who was always trying to mend the hurt bird’s wing or the dog hit by a car.
She was also one of those kids who cried when she saw a housing or business development take root in what was once a childhood play land of streams, woods and fields.
Now the nationally known environmental activist is in New Mexico filming an episode of a PBS program focusing on ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
The PBS show Here’s the Story is filming the third part of a series focusing on environmental issues and efforts to secure constitutional protection of environmental rights. It will shoot in the Santa Fe and Española areas Friday and Saturday.
Van Rossum, author of The Green Amendment: Securing Our Right to a Healthy Environment, is working with lawmakers to introduce an amendment to New Mexico’s Constitution that ensures people’s rights to clean air and water, a stable climate and a healthy environment.
The Green Amendment, as it is known, goes beyond any legislation currently in place to protect the state’s environment, van Rossum said during a phone interview Thursday. It would not only protect the state environment but set up legal roadblocks to any action that would violate the amendment, she said.
“People have the right to free speech, to freedom of religion. They have gun rights, property rights — all sorts of fundamental rights that they embrace and demand because they learned through the entirety of their lives that this is their constitutional right,” van Rossum said. “On that level ... the same reasoning would come to bear on the right of people to clean water and clean air, a stable climate and the critical benefits of a healthy environment.”
Van Rossum said only Montana and Pennsylvania have their own version of such amendments. And they are not without teeth, she said.
For example, an Environmental Rights Amendment was enacted in Pennsylvania in the early 1970s. That state’s Supreme Court twice upheld the amendment, most recently in a 2017 case questioning whether lawmakers could funnel revenue generated from oil and gas into the general fund. It can’t — the amendment says those funds have to go into environmental protective initiatives.
Whether such an amendment would gain traction in New Mexico, which leans heavily on revenue from the oil and gas industry to help fund social services, including public education, is unclear.
Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces and a supporter of the amendment, said it should not be seen as an anti-oil-and-gas bill. “Oil and gas have been good to New Mexico,” he said.
Citing the venting and flaring of methane that comes with those operations and impacts the environment, he said the amendment “would force you to show that you are putting the common good, and not the profits, first” when it came to justifying such actions.
He and Sen. Antoinette Sedillo-Lopez, D-Albuquerque, both said they believe they can gain bipartisan support for the bill, which they plan to introduce in the next legislative session, slated to start in mid-January.
Sedillo-Lopez said the amendment represents “a big statement on policy changes.”
“It’s hard to argue that you don’t have a right to clean air and clean water,” she added.
Still, there are hurdles. In New Mexico, a majority of legislators in the House and Senate would have to approve the amendment before sending it to voters.
Meanwhile, van Rossum is talking to Native American and environmental leaders to help draft the specifics of the bill while engaging them in discussion for the PBS show, which gives her a broader platform to discuss the amendment.
“It can be difficult going person to person, talk by talk to deliver the message,” she said. “So to be able to spread that message through this PBS series more broadly and quickly through personal stories and conversations is exciting and inspiring.”
Here’s the Story producer Steve Rogers, who said he first heard van Rossum speak during a protest against a proposed gas pipeline in New Jersey in 2016, said he was struck by her magnetic personality.
“You can feel the energy and inspiration that comes off of her,” he said by phone. “And when I later heard Maya talk about this Green Amendment, shining a light on Maya and her message just made total sense.”
He said he considered her a “folk hero … who does things for the good of all of us.”