Federal regulators and local transportation officials near the Sonoma County town of Cotati want to chop down an extremely rare albino chimera coast redwood to make way for a rail line.
Preservationists greeted the announcement by Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) officials last week with horrific disbelief and rallied enough community and national support to win, at least, a short reprieve from a date with a chainsaw that could come in a few weeks.
The nearly 70-year-old, 52-foot-tall redwood is a genetic oddity. It carries two separate sets of DNA and is even rarer than the normal albino redwoods that number around 230 worldwide. The tree is a unique grouping of green leaves with white, albino sections of leaves mixed in.
Tom Stapleton, a California arborist and expert in the field of albino redwood tree mutations, told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat that fewer than 10 such chimeras have been identified.
SMART officials disagree with that dire assessment. An arborist's report, commissioned by the agency in 2012, said, “60 chimera coast redwoods have been documented within the native coast redwood range south of Del Norte County.” Kent Julin of Arborscience attributed the lower count to “lack of access to a large percentage of the redwood forest.”
Julin said the tree, which would be within five feet or so of the train tracks, would pose a threat to passing trains. He recommended its removal if the tracks could not be moved. The 43-mile stretch of track for the SMART rail line was approved in 2008. The commuter train line will have 10 stations when completed in 2016 and was designed to reduce traffic on Highway 101.
To compensate for the loss of the rare tree, authorities proposed planting 20 regular coast redwoods somewhere else and using cuttings from the chimera to replicate it. Replication is not considered a realistic alternative by Stapleton and other preservationists, who don’t believe cuttings from the tree would reproduce the chimera.
Albinos lack the ability to produce needed nutrients through photosynthesis and would die in the wild if they were on their own. But chimeras are essentially a chlorophyll-deficient albino and a regular redwood combined into one tree with two distinctive looks. The regular redwood provides the nutrients for both.
Talks are now underway to see if the tree can be moved to another location. It is not clear whether a tree that size and that old can be successfully moved. The cost is unknown, although it will be substantial, and the city of Cotati would have to find a home for it on its land.