At 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21, an event titled, “What is the Value of a Tree?” was hosted at the UCR Extension Center to discuss the roles that trees and plants play in society. Distinguished Professor of Genetics and Interim Director of UCR’s California Agriculture and Food Enterprise Norm Ellstrand introduced the three speakers and moderated the event.

“We’re fortunate to have three people who basically eat, breathe and live trees coming at trees from very different points of view,” Ellstrand began.

First to speak was Ryan Berk, co-owner and founder of Parliament Chocolate in Redlands. Berk explained his background as a California native who began as a chef and worked his way to opening the ice cream shop a la minute before opening Parliament Chocolate. “Coming from Redlands and knowing these farmers and just, being part of this farming community (…) people that respected the ingredients that they worked with. This is what I knew I wanted to do,” Berk shared.

He then discussed how he believed the ethics generally involved in obtaining cacao for chocolate did not hold a reputation that he could respect, leading him to go to Guatemala and Belize in search of how he could find an ethical process in making chocolate. “What we’re trying to do is teach these farmers to process the cacao at the farm with higher quality and higher respect to the ingredient in itself. In turn, we can actually pay three to four hundred percent more above market value,” Berk explained.

Associate Professor of Landscape Ecology Darrel Jenerette then discussed his research in ecology, and informally, urban ecology. Having lived in Arizona and now, Los Angeles, Jenerette has looked at the influences that trees and cities have on each other. One item Jenerette has studied is the concept of “ecosystem services,” which are “the benefits that people get from processes that the ecosystem does such as food production, climate regulation or just spiritual value.” With cities oftentimes being hotter than the surrounding areas, trees and vegetation have been found to cool urban areas by up to 5 degrees, as Jenerette has found in Phoenix, AZ and LA.

The other major point of study that Jenerette has conducted includes trying to measure the diversity of trees in the urban environment. Jenerette describes “cities as hotspots of biodiversity,” and explained how, “There are more trees in greater Los Angeles than there are species in all of California.” He finished by discussing how the quantified value of a tree is difficult to truly be determined because of the different types of criteria that each individual holds trees to.

Last to speak was Deputy Director of the Armenia Tree Project (ATP) Jason Sohigian. “Our work at Armenia Tree Project is geared especially towards the rural areas where we found there’s the greatest need,” after the country’s legacy of being under the control of the Soviet Union for 70 years until they declared independence in 1991. Following independence, Armenia experienced high levels of deforestation, due to the use of wood for cooking and heating, prompting the creation of ATP in 1994.

Trees planted in the country have helped in mitigating natural disasters such as landslides and flooding, providing fruit to people around the country, purifying air and providing shade in cities. “We place a big emphasis on fruit trees, growing as many as our nurseries would allow,” Sohigian explained, also explaining the value of the fruit to Armenia’s citizens. Additionally, ATP began an environmental education program to educate the people of Armenia on deforestation. The organization has planted more than 5.2 million trees since its inception.

After the speakers individually discussed their work, the three congregated into a panel in which Ellstrand asked the group a series of questions, and gave the speakers the opportunity to ask each other questions about their work. The event ended with a Q-and-A. The event was the first session of a three-day-long series of events during the week. The second and third events were held on Wednesday, Feb. 22 and Thursday, Feb. 23, respectively.