As bitter as this winter has been at times in the Northeast, it has not been cold enough to allay concerns of a recurring springtime problem: the gypsy moth.
Early forecasts by the US Forest Service project at least the same amount of damage that the region endured last year, when a record 12.8 million acres from Maine to West Virginia were defoliated by gypsy moth caterpillars. Most healthy trees eventually grew new leaves, but, by one estimate, as much as $28 million in timber may have been damaged.
Compounding the problem this year is an expected decrease in federal and state aid available for chemical spraying against the pests. But cities and towns are far from unanimous on the wisdom -- environmentally speaking -- of spraying. Opponents argue that some commonly used sprays kill honey bees, butterflies, and other beneficial insects, drive away birds, and pose potential dangers to human and animal health.
The caterpillars are particularly offensive to people because they invade residential neighborhoods as well as rural areas, through most of May and June and into early July. They crawl on houses, on anything outdoors, and leave indelible blotches on automobile finishes.
The greenish-brown pests have a variety of natural enemies, but some of these -- mice, starlings, and grackles -- also are unpopular with urbanites.
Adult gypsy moths live less than a week, but in that time a single female can lay 1,000 eggs in clusters that make unsightly patches on trees, fences, and the like.
State foresters and agricultural experiment station personnel report that the loss from low winter temperatures is not significant. A prolonged period of well-below-zero weather is needed to destroy the eggs.
And Gypsy moths appear to be spreading. The Forest Service reports defoliation or the trapping of male moths in 29 states.
In the Northeast, 1.2 million acres are earmarked for ''suppression'' by aerial spraying this year -- at a cost of $15.3 million, according to Ray Steiger of the Forest Service. These include what he calls ''areas of high value ,'' such as national and state parks, scenic sections, and historically significant communities.
Unless a spraying program of major proportions is undertaken, however, such popular tourist areas as Cape Cod and Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts may incur heavy defoliation, says Stan Hood of the state Bureau of Insect and Pest Control.
But Mr. Steiger and Mr. Hood both expect less federal assistance. The decision by Congress on how heavily to fund all types of pest control nationally is already two weeks late. But, whatever the amount, Steiger says it will be ''quite a bit less than is necessary just for the gypsy moth.''
Hood says he has had indications that the federal share of the local cost for aerial spraying against the gypsy moth will be 12.5 percent, which he calls ''hardly worth the paper work.'' Moreover, the federal money is not applicable to spraying from the ground up, which some consider safer, if less effective.
''If they insist that no more than 12.5 percent is available, I suspect that some communities will just drop out,'' Hood adds. To help defray local costs of spraying from the ground, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management has asked the Legislature for a $300,000 supplemental appropriation.
Connecticut, which was 50 percent defoliated last year and is expected to be hit hard again this spring, bans aerial spraying of nonfarm lands. Even in areas eligible to be sprayed, the state requires written releases from owners whose property would be covered either directly or because of drifting.
But Dr. John Anderson of the state Agricultural Experiment Station at New Haven says the Connecticut woodlands have survived years of clear-cutting, forest fires, and diseases in this century alone, ''and they'll survive the gypsy moth, too.''
The alternative to spraying is to hope that the gypsy moth cycle comes to an early end. But Steiger says there is no way of predicting when the current cycle may be over. A trend would seem to be upward, since 2 million acres were defoliated in 1979 and 5.1 million the following year.
Even so, in 1953 nearly 1.5 million acres were defoliated, he says. Five years later the total was a mere 125.