Emmett Pegan


SCA Biology Intern at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge

After working outside helped Emmett Pegan deal with the stress of coming out as transgender, he decided to try and make a career of it. Now as an SCA Biology Intern at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia, he’s learning what such a career might look like before he heads to college in the fall.

What’s your SCA story?

Honestly, at first I got involved with SCA just because it was something to do, but my first National Crew— the summer of my 9th grade year in Bishop, CA with the Bureau of Land Management— really profoundly affected me. It was actually a pretty hard time for me because in addition to struggling with anxiety and depression, I had just realized I was transgender- even though I was born biologically female, I felt like a boy. I was still closeted to everyone, and so uncomfortable in my own skin. Despite everything I was dealing with, something about the work we did clicked with me. Working outside in nature calmed me, and at a time when nothing really made me feel all that happy, I thought to myself, “You know what, if I can work outside in beautiful places then maybe I’ll be OK.” The defining moment of that crew was visiting Yosemite. The worst part of depression is that it sucks the life out of everything, but Yosemite broke through the fog and touched my heart. It was way more beautiful than I ever thought it could be, and for the first time I really “got” why people were passionate about the outdoors. I’ve been involved with SCA ever since.  My last crew in Kennesaw Georgia was really special because I was finally out of the closet, and everyone on the crew knew I was a guy.   SCA was really awesome when I called them up and explained my situation, and both my leaders and the other kids on the crew were supportive.  It was a huge relief to finally just be seen as a boy, and while all my crews were kind of like little families, my last crew was especially close.  I think working with SCA has helped me grow and realize that just because something’s hard at first doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

How does the work you’re doing with SCA help the people of Philadelphia?

This summer I’m doing a CDIP biology internship at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia with SCA and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  It’s a local internship, and it’s been really cool to work in a park that my family and I actually go to, and I think that gave me a better appreciation for the impact that working with SCA actually has.  I know that the work I’m doing benefits the people of the Philadelphia area because I’m one of those people who benefits from it—I love going to fish and hike and wildlife-watch at John Heinz, and I know all the hard work that goes into making that possible.  Outdoor time has always been very important to me—it’s helped me get through some of the tougher times in my life. I think that’s true for a lot of people, so I think it’s important that everyone have easy opportunities to get out into nature if they want to. I’ve spent a lot of time clearing invasive Phragmites this summer with assistance from five goats on the refuge who clear it by grazing. Day-to-day, it’s easy to forget the big picture, but one thing a visitor said to us really stuck with me.  He said that he had lived right near John Heinz his whole life, and he’s excited to see how much the refuge has improved over the years.  That made me think of all the staff, volunteers and interns that have worked here over the years—all the small things we each did have added up to a huge difference.

What inspires you to serve the planet?

Nature has always been an important part of my life, and I really think it’s important to make sure that it’s protected. I think a lot of people take nature for granted, I know I used to, but the more I learned about conservation the more I realized that if you don’t actively protect them, wild spaces will disappear forever. That’s why I love the park and refuge systems so much.   It’s really important to preserve habitat for wild animals, and to protect outdoor spaces, or else in a couple generations they’ll be gone.

Tell us about your most memorable outdoor service experience.

Hard to choose, but one of my favorites was building a completely new trail in Hot Springs, Arkansas. It was really satisfying to walk down the trail at the end and see all that we’d accomplished. Another thing I really enjoyed was going to a community center in Philadelphia and helping create a mural out of tiles on one of their walls. The community center was really cool- they had installed all sorts of different water saving tools like semi-permeable pavement and rain barrels.

What’s your favorite park or other outdoor space?

Buckshot Lake Camp, which is in Plevna, Ontario in Canada, is probably one of my favorite places in the world.  Part of it is just how many memories I have from there- every summer my family and all of my extended family go up there for two weeks and stay in cabins along the beach. It’s a really peaceful place, and it was the highlight of my year when I was a kid (and to this day) — I’d spend two weeks playing on the beach, kayaking, swimming, and building sand castles with my family. You’re surrounded by nature and I love it up there because it just feels wild and peaceful.

What’s your next earthsaving goal?

I’m planning on majoring in either Environmental Science or Biology when I attend Elizabethtown College, and after that I hope to get a job working in a park or refuge.  I’m currently doing an internship with both SCA and the Fish and Wildlife Service, and through that I’ve gotten to learn a lot about different conservation career paths.  I would love to maybe become a wildlife biologist, and work with wild animals.  I’m working with a wildlife biologist, Brendalee Phillips, as part of my internship and a lot of what she does is keep the refuge from getting overrun with invasive species so that it remains a good habitat for the wide variety of animals that make it their home.