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Standing inconspicuously beside a block wall across the street from a glass shop in Cotati is one of the rarest living life forms in the world, an albino chimera coast redwood tree.

Researchers say fewer than 10 of the genetically mutated trees are known to exist.

But if SMART's rail plans proceed, the tree — the largest of its kind — soon will be cut down so commuter trains can safely zoom past.

"This tree is irreplaceable," said Tom Stapleton, a former Sonoma County arborist who is now based in Amador County and studies the rare mutations. "They need to do something more than just cut it down."

SMART said the tree, just north of East Cotati Avenue about 15 feet west of the tracks, must be removed — possibly as early as next month — to meet federal safety regulations as the district lays a second railroad track near the existing one in preparation for eventual rail activity along the line.

"We are just complying with safety regulations," said Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit spokeswoman Carolyn Glendening. "It's a decision that's been made by federal regulators. It's not a discretionary matter. It's not a policy matter for the board. It's a safety matter."

But preservationists and those in the scientific community aren't satisfied with that answer. They are hoping to raise public awareness about the rare genetic specimen in the middle of Cotati, the hub of the Redwood Empire.

Cotati historian Prue Draper, who began investigating the unusual tree earlier this year, has communicated with other historians, researchers and scientists about the oddity. They have, in turn, sought help from local politicians.

Late Tuesday, SMART Board Member Deb Fudge said she contacted SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian and has started discussions to potentially move the tree to Cotati-owned land.

"It's still super tenuous," she said. "But at least that gives it a shot. We haven't figured out who would pay or any of that yet."

The tree is a scientific treasure, said Zane Moore, a botany student at Colorado State University and a widely known researcher in chlorophyll-deficient, or albino, redwoods.

Coast redwoods are the only conifers in the world with more than 100 documented occurrences of albinism, he said.

"So understanding albino plants as a whole hinges on this species," Moore said.

Cotati's tree isn't just an albino, but a chimera — a phenomenon seen in only a handful of naturally occurring redwoods in the world.

"A chimera means the plant has two genotypes, two sets of DNA growing in one plant," Moore explained. "This tree is one of very few known chimeric redwoods in the world, and there is only one chimeric redwood known to exhibit the same style of albinism."

The other is a 5-foot-tall immature bush with fewer than five albino shoots, which is of limited scientific use at this point, he said.

In Cotati's mature tree, green and white needles appear on the same limb, similar to a candy cane's alternating red and white stripes, Stapleton said.

To the untrained eye, the needles near its top appear oddly yellow, as if it may be unhealthy. Upon closer inspection, the limbs show one of the rarest genetic abnormalities in science: the dual-DNA variegation of green and white needles on the same stem.

It is the world's largest and tallest chimera, at 52? feet.

It is at least 67 years old, according to Louise Santero, a neighbor who dates it to pre-1947. That's when she and her husband moved to Cotati and were friends with the family whose patriarch, Peter Tapian, planted it and lovingly covered it at night with a box when the tree was vulnerable.

"This tree is older than Cotati could even think of bein'," Santero said. "Why the railroad would want to get it out of there is beyond me ... I don't like it."

She said SMART needs to be more creative than just removing the tree.

"Why do that? You can go to the moon, you can try stuff," she said. "It's amazing. Why they don't understand that, I don't know."

Two years ago, SMART said the tree wasn't slated for removal. But a second track was added to the Cotati station, which would put the tree within 4 feet.

Recent developments set Stapleton on a path to save the tree, including enlisting the support of Fudge and Cotati City Council members.

Glendening said the district's arborists have explored other options, including trimming the tree, but it is simply just too close to the planned tracks.

SMART's plans are to plant 20 coast redwoods to replace the loss of this one, Glendening said.

A SMART arborist recommended the agency cut the tree down and take 1,000 cuttings that will be given to a private nursery to attempt to propagate. The nursery could then be able to sell any resulting saplings, she said.

Stapleton opposes SMART's plan to allow a private company to profit from a tree being removed by a public agency.

Stapleton said SMART's propagation plan is "hugely flawed and not based on science."

"Chimeras are inherently unstable, so they must be rooted off of a certain plant material or they will end up in failure ," he said. "Basically they need to know what to look for or the whole effort will be a wasted effort."

He said in his years of experience, he's only managed to root a few cuttings from this tree.

"With that said, it's even more important than ever to press for the preserve of this tree," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.

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