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John Coope, a retired University of British Columbia professor of theoretical chemistry, poses for a photograph at Jericho Beach Park, in Vancouver, on Thursday October 24, 2019.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

On a typical fall day in Jericho Beach Park, John Coope is often looking for intruders.

He sees them everywhere: a tangle of Himalayan blackberry, a clump of Japanese knotweed, a dense, spreading stand of yellow flag iris, a moisture-loving perennial with showy flowers that has a tendency to outgrow its welcome.

“They’re very pretty, but once they get going, they spread like a skin disease,” Mr. Coope, 88, says of the flowers, formally known as Iris pseudacorus.

Like blackberries and knotweed, the irises are considered an invasive species in Vancouver’s Jericho Beach Park, an oceanfront gem that boasts a duck pond and panoramic views across Burrard Inlet.

For the past two decades, Mr. Coope has made it his mission to beat back such botanical invaders to make room for native plants including Douglas fir, vine maples and salmonberry that would otherwise not be able to flourish.

This year, Mr. Coope’s work, undertaken first as a volunteer and then as the co-founder of Jericho Stewardship Group, was recognized in the lifetime achievement category of the Nature Inspiration Awards. The awards, presented annually by the Canadian Museum of Nature, honour individuals and organizations whose projects encourage Canadians to take an interest in natural history.

Previous lifetime achievement award winners include Dave Mossop, in 2018, a Yukon wildlife biologist who has championed endangered species, especially the Peregrine falcon; and Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, in 2015, a Vancouver landscape architect known for projects including the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia.

Mr. Coope is pleased but bashful about the honour, saying he got started by pulling purple loosestrife and essentially kept going.

It’s a hands-on business and repetitive. In the early going, by the time he’d finished clearing a pond of loosestrife, it was time to start again. Seeds can stay dormant in the ground for decades, lurking until someone lets their guard down.

Over time, with vigilance, the maintenance gets easier. But it never ends.

“The work tends to expand to fill the time,” Mr. Coope says.

Governments across the continent are grappling with invasive species, ranging from zebra mussels in the Great Lakes to feral pigs in Texas. The worry is that invasive species will squeeze out native plants and animals, reducing biodiversity.

So it is with the Himalayan blackberry: Widespread throughout B.C., the plants are popular with birds and berry pickers but, left unchecked, can turn into Sleeping Beauty-style thickets that choke out other plants.

Mr. Coope has cut them, pulled them and dug them out, sometimes exhuming young trees in the process.

Formerly a chemistry professor at the University of British Columbia, Mr. Coope lives near the park and has visited it for years with his wife. He loves the outdoors, having hiked or climbed his way around the province, and likes to be active.

Formerly a chemistry professor at the University of British Columbia, Mr. Coope lives near Jericho Beach Park and has visited it for years with his wife.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

After noticing the overgrown areas, he set to work armed with photocopies of botanical illustrations tucked in to his pocket for reference. His tools include pruners and a old-fashioned scythe.

He started on his own around 1997. In 2004, he helped found the Jericho Stewardship Group, a non-profit focused on nurturing natural habitat in the park.

The group has the blessing of the Vancouver Park Board, which credits Mr. Coope with improving the “ecological integrity” of the park.

Jericho Stewardship president Susan Fisher, who nominated Mr. Coope for the award, says he’s helped foster a good relationship with the park board and inspired volunteers to get involved.

“You see John out there working for hours on end, and you think, ‘Well, the rest of us don’t have an excuse,’ ” Ms. Fisher says, who also likened the work to emptying the ocean with a teaspoon.

Mr. Coope, who estimates he’s spent about 400 hours a year in the park, has seen dogs and toddlers, families and loners, lovers and birders. But he’s also met people living in tents. He says he tends to look the other way in those cases, unless he sees garbage piling up or spots a fire hazard, in which case he might alert park authorities.

Once, while hacking through a stand of thistles, he came upon a tidy plot of potted cannabis plants. When he came back the next day, the pots were gone.

He hopes the work will continue after he’s gone. In a meadow cleared of Scotch broom and knotweed, he stops to point out recently planted, native shrubs – marked by pink flags and looking small and vulnerable on the forest floor.

“It’s kind of like getting a tiger by the tail – once you start, it’s a little bit difficult to let go.”

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