A passionate arborist is desperately trying to save what he says is the world's tallest albino redwood chimera, which is slated to be cut down to make way for train tracks in the San Francisco Bay Area's wine country. It is also one of ten known trees of its kind on the planet.
Tom Stapleton, a California arborist and expert in the field of albino redwood tree mutations, is meeting with a public works director and other key stakeholders on Friday in Cotati -- a tiny city in the heart of Sonoma County. He's trying to work out a deal to save the tree by moving it to a city park, despite the money it will take to uproot the gigantic tree and transport it.
As of now, the 52-foot tall, nearly 70-year-old tree is headed to the chopping block next month to meet federal safety regulations as the county's transportation district is poised to lay down a second railroad track four feet from where the tree stands.
Construction on the new, voter-approved 43-mile track is scheduled to begin in April.
"The tree is irreplaceable and there's none other like it in the world," Stapleton said.
For its part, the transit district leaders insist they aren't tree haters. They say they have no choice.
"We are just complying with safety regulations,” Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit spokeswoman Carolyn Glendening, saying that unfortunately, the tree was planted 50 or 60 years ago in the train's right of way. And keeping it there when a new track is laid, is dangerous. If left where it is, the tree could topple on the tracks, she said.
The transit district has offered to take 1,000 cuttings from this rare tree to "mitigate" the loss of the redwood and plant 20 new trees. But Stapleton said that based on his experience, it would be impossible to replicate the same genetic characteristics of the parent tree.
Instead, Stapleton and other preservationists want the tree to be moved to Helen Putnam Regional Park within the city of Cotati.
Stapleton said the city is on board with the plan, but he has two hurdles: Finding the money to pay special crews to uproot the tree and move it, and get the transit district to approve the re-location. Stapleton said he doesn't know how much it will cost, only that it's likely to be "a lot." He said one donor promised him $5,000 so far if his idea gets the OK.
Glendening indicated that the transit district is "completely open" to the idea of moving the tree, but she wondered whether it was even feasible because of the age and the size of the tree.
She also indicated the district would not pay for it, as the taxpayer-funded construction was not earmarked to move a tree.
For Stapleton, who used to live in Sonoma County and now lives in Volcano, Amador County, this isn't about saving one old tree. It's about understanding the changing world we live in.
"What is the cause of these albino trees?" Stapleton said in an interview with NBC Bay Area. "Are they telling us there is a problem with our environment? Climate change? Pollution? If we figure it out, then this tree could lead to other discoveries."
It's not just trees that are albino chimeras, but people carry the genetic oddity, too, and for Stapleton, are all worth studying. A chimera is a single organism composed of genetically distinct cells. In this particular tree in Cotati, Stapleton says it carries two separate DNA sets: One makes the leaves look normal and green; the other turns the leaves a yellow-ish albino color. Albino trees have the inability to produce chlorophyll.
Of the 230 albino redwoods in the world, Stapleton said only 10 known trees carry this chimera characteristic, with the tallest living in Cotati, a city of nearly 8,000 people 45 miles north of San Francisco, known for his hexagonal downtown plaza and hometown of E&J Gallo Winery.
Jennifer Benito, spokeswoman for the Save the Redwoods League, a nonprofit in San Francisco, is working with Stapleton to help figure out what to do, and what is best for the tree. Benito noted that Stapleton is among the few albino redwood researchers in the world, and that he is an expert in his field.
Stapleton has been studying albino redwoods since 1995, when he first discovered one in Sonoma County's Jack London State Park. Then he read the book, "The White Redwoods, Ghosts of the Forests." He and one of the authors, Dale Holderman, became fast friends and colleagues. Stapleton is now continuing his independent research with Colorado State botany undergraduate Zane Moore.
Stapleton then discovered his first chimera in 1997. He's counted 10 so far in California. He doesn't like to say where they are planted, fearing people will chop them down to sell them. He said that's what happened with the one chimera tree found in Oregon. But there are documented albino trees in Muir Woods in Marin County, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
While Stapleton is a bit concerned, he's hopeful his efforts and the media attention on his plight will end up saving the tree.
"If we lose, science will have lost a great treasure in the botany world," he said. "I'm optimistic we'll come to some agreement."
To find out more about saving the tree, email Stapleton and Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org. The two have also started a Save the Rare Cotati Chimeric Albino Redwood Tree Facebook page.
UPDATE: The tree got a reprieve on Thursday afternoon. The Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit district said it will conduct "additional verification of expert analysis" and "an investigation of options."