Five years ago, after a retired University of California professor found a light brown apple moth in his Berkeley backyard, the state and federal government responded with a blitzkrieg.
Warning that the invasive pest could devastate California's farms, government officials fanned out across the Bay Area. In the fall of 2007, they used airplanes to spray wide areas of Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, sparking lawsuits and health complaints from residents.
Today, however, the state is quietly dropping funding for the program.
Money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will keep the program alive for at least another year. But Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget for the upcoming year eliminates the use of state general fund money for light brown apple moth research, inspection and control.
In 2008, the California Department of Food and Agriculture dropped plans to aerially spray counties across the Bay Area amid a public furor, and the population of the moths appears to have increased. Still, there have been no documented cases of significant damage to farms from the moth since then.
Environmental groups say state and federal agencies overreacted -- and that the decision by California to stop funding the program is the clearest evidence of that yet.
"Five years ago, the light brown apple moth was an emergency," said Nan Wishner, of Albany, a board member of the California Environmental Health Initiative, a nonprofit group that has opposed much of the moth program.
"They couldn't even wait to do an environmental impact report before they sprayed populated areas," Wishner said. "But now, voila! The state cut out the money. There hasn't been any damage. They can't keep the charade going any longer."
The state budget signed by Brown last year chopped California's share of the program roughly in half, from $1.7 million to $953,000. It would go to zero under the budget proposal Brown released last month for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
What the state Legislature is taking away, however, Congress is giving back.
After California cut the program last year, Congress restored the money at the request of the California Farm Bureau Federation, increasing the federal share of the program from $5.3 million to $6.1 million this year.
Rep. Sam Farr, D-Salinas, secured the extra money.
He's always been against any aerial spraying, Farr said this week. But he replaced the money to help fund inspection programs that are needed to certify that California fruits and vegetables sold in areas where the moth lives are bug-free so they can be sold to foreign countries and other states.
"Growers of strawberries and other products have to go through extra delay and costs to have the inspections," Farr said. "The money we put in at the federal level was to pay for that."
Farr said his ultimate goal is to persuade the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reclassify the moth as a pest of lesser concern. That would mean that the inspections and quarantine areas would no longer be necessary.
State officials, however, insist that the decision to eliminate state funding for moth programs doesn't mean the pest is no longer a problem.
"It's not a statement on the necessity of this program," said Steve Lyle, a spokesman for the state Department of Food and Agriculture. "It is a straight budget move, plain and simple, that reflects the difficult budget times the state is facing."
Lyle noted that the idea to cut the funding originated in the state Legislature.
Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, pushed the cuts.
"To me it was a pretty easy call," said Huffman, a member of the Assembly budget committee. "Despite all of the hoopla about crop damage and other things that were supposed to happen, we have seen zero evidence of significant damage from the light brown apple moth. And frankly, the administration didn't really fight it very hard. They realized this probably wasn't something we needed to be spending our limited money on."
Lyle contends that crop damage still could happen as the moth's numbers grow. He cites the gypsy moth, which was in the United States for years before major damage occurred.
In 2008, after the first round of aerial spraying of a material called Checkmate LBAM-F -- a chemical mix containing synthetic pheromones that block the male moths from reproducing -- environmentalists and Santa Cruz County sued, saying the chemical was untested and needed more study.
A state health investigation found health complaints after the spraying could not be linked to the pheromone mixture.
The state had plans to spray over northern San Mateo County, San Francisco, Marin County, Contra Costa County and Oakland. But judges ordered the spraying stopped until an environmental impact report could be completed.
When the state finally issued that report last year, opponents, including the city of San Francisco, sued again, arguing it did not adequately study public health issues. That lawsuit is set for a court hearing this spring.
In the meantime, the number of apple moths in Northern California appears to be growing. Between 2007 and 2011, an estimated 86,698 moths were discovered in Santa Cruz County, more than any other county, followed by the counties of San Francisco with 81,829; Alameda, with 49,594; Monterey, with 35,479; Contra Costa, with 19,397; San Mateo, with 15,510; and Marin, with 11,201. Only 906 have been found in Santa Clara County.
The state and federal moth program now involves no spraying. It consists of trapping, monitoring and inspections, said Larry Hawkins, a USDA spokesman.
Last month, as a cost-saving measure, the USDA closed a research station in Moss Landing that was breeding sterile light brown apple moths to control the population.
In the most-infested areas, there is no government control work. When necessary, farmers pay for pesticides, Hawkins said.
One remaining question is whether the USDA will keep funding the program, or will it die entirely?
"California's agricultural economy is significant to the health of the U.S. economy as a whole," Hawkins said. "I think our elected officials will look at that, as they have in the past, and hopefully they'll allocate whatever funding is necessary to support that economic engine."