G’day, mate, got a sec for the economics of the cane toads?

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Julia Huffman

Linfield College student and McNary graduate Julia Huffman visits with a wallaby during a recent trip to Australia as part of a study abroad program. (Photo submitted by Julia Huffman)

By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

The study of economics might strike a dull chord for most, but Linfield College student Julia Huffman could likely change their hearts after a single conversation.

She might start by telling about Australia’s cane toad invasion. The poisonous amphibian was introduced to Australia to control insects in sugar fields.

“The problem arises because all these beautiful snakes and lizards see the toad as easy prey and bite into one, but the reptile will be dead within minutes because of a defensive poison that cane toads have in their backs,” Huffman said.

As part of a study abroad program at Linfield, the 2008 McNary High School graduate recently journeyed Down Under to gets hands-on lessons in material that might otherwise seem dry coming out of a textbook.

“I did a cost and benefit economic analysis of the cane toad problem. They need to find a solution to cane toads, but the methods necessary are very costly,” Huffman, a business administration and economics major, said. “It is not efficient to simply kill them by hand, but using other methods like poison create many negative externalities. One of the externalities is that the poison does not only kill off the cane toads but harms other species as well.”

On the trip, Huffman got to cuddle up with some of the snakes and reptiles that need protection as well as wallabies and other native species. It was part of an effort to take economics out of the classroom and put students’ boots on the ground where the impact of economic decisions affects people and even other species – Huffman had her boots on the ground often.

“I’ve never been on hikes that rugged in my life. I climbed mountains I never thought I would climb. I stood on mountain cliffs and looked across the Outback,” she said. “I fed stingrays and swam with sharks on the Great Barrier Reef – the reef was magical. I’ve never seen water so blue, coral so colorful, and so many unique fish. We raced back from the reef in the middle of a thunder and lightning storm, I will never forget the bolt of lightning coming down around us as we held on to the boat and was pelted with monsoon rain.”

The roughest it got was staying in Cape Tribulation in Queensland.

“The cabins we stayed in had holes in the walls and floor and holes in the window screens, so there wasn’t anyway to keep things out. We were in the middle of the tropical rainforest and I had spiders the size of my hand sleeping right outside my window,” she said.

For every thing that put her outside her comfort zone, another experience more than made up for it. Huffman had a class on the beach and drew supply and demand graphs in the sand. She also got to taste kangaroo and crocodile, but she said kangaroo would be her preference of the two.

Students kept journals throughout their trip and attempted to apply economic lessons to achieve a better understanding of the things they saw.

A major point of the work was looking at the struggles of Aboriginal people, the native inhabitants of Australia, through an economic lens.

“After hanging out and talking with some Aborigines I feel not only like I understand their struggles, but also I feel empathetic,” she said. “I respect them so much for holding on to their cultural traditions despite the changing times. I also am saddened by the fact that there are very few of them that live completely traditionally anymore; white man has been a strong influence.

“For Aborigines, the idea of a better life has a lot more to do with tradition compared to material possessions. Relationships are everything to them, and like Americans work for the individual, Aborigines do everything for their group or clan.”

The overall experience of the trip proved to be a life changer for Huffman.

“Ultimately, this trip helped me think about what I want to do in the future,” she said. “After learning of Aboriginal struggles and the huge environmental issues that Australia faces, I realized that I am meant to help people. This spring I am beginning my application for a Fulbright Scholarship so that hopefully after graduation I can travel to a country like Australia for a year and work and make a difference.”

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