SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — It's a tree so rare that there are believed to be fewer than 10 of its kind in the world, and it could be chopped down to make way for commuter trains in Northern California.
Preservationists are hoping to stoke public awareness and save the albino chimero coast redwood growing in the small Sonoma County town of Cotati.
Standing 52-feet tall, the tree features a unique mixture of normal green leaves and white, albino sections. It's believed to be the largest of its kind on the planet.
But Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) officials say the decision to remove it is out of their hands.
Federal regulators have determined the tree must come down for safety reasons. The genetically mutated redwood is apparently too close to a proposed set of new tracks.
"We have federal safety clearance requirements we must comply with," said Carolyn Glendening, a SMART spokeswoman. "Whether it's this tree or any other tree."
To mitigate the tree's loss, the rail project is required to plant 20 coast redwoods elsewhere. They will also take "thousands of cuttings" from the rare tree in an attempt to preserve it, Glendening said.
The SMART rail line was approved by voters in 2008 to help ease congestion on Highway 101 through Marin and Sonoma Counties.
The first 43-mile stretch of the commuter rail line is scheduled to open in late 2016, with 10 stations and so-called "clean diesel" trains designed to meet new federal emissions standards.
"The new engines lower greenhouse gas emissions to unprecedented levels, and they are quieter," Glendening said.
There is hope for the tree.
Scientists and others are urging local politicians to consider a plan to move the rare genetic specimen to land nearby by the city of Cotati. Talks are underway.
Emily Burns, who studies redwoods as science director at Save the Redwoods League in San Francisco, said the tree is a scientific treasure.
It's a chimera — or a plant with two sets of DNA fused together — which is only seen in a handful of naturally occurring redwoods on the planet.
Alone, albino redwoods cannot survive in the wild because they are unable to conduct photosynthesis, the process of turning sunlight into nutrients. Existing albino redwoods are joined with normal trees that can produce the needed nutrient.
"A chimera is really a genetic oddity in any species," Burns said. "It has two separate genomes mashed together. It's a mosaic of tissues."
Burns said the tree is also old enough to have developed male and female cones — meaning it would produce offspring.
"I'm curious to see what the offspring of this tree would be," she said.
Her group is considering whether to help any relocation plans.
And SMART's board has begun discussions to see if it's possible to move the tree to city-owned land.
"It's still super tenuous," Deb Fudge, a SMART board member, told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. "But at least that gives it a shot. We haven't figured out who would pay or any of that yet."
Jason Dearen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/JHDearen