Newark and the rural (for New Jersey) township of West Milford have been feuding for years, but only recently has West Milford turned to turtles and snakes for help.

West Milford is attempting to fight off moderate-income housing proposed by Newark which, although it is 35 miles away, owns about a third of West Milford's land.

Perhaps inspired by the saga of the mighty snail darter, which for a time blocked construction of Tellico Dam in Tennessee, West Milford put out a call for a herpetologist to search for an endangered reptile or amphibian on the proposed construction sites.

The herpetologist, Robert Zappalorti, spent 18 days in the field with his employers, who are hoping he would come across a bog turtle or a timber rattlesnake.

A representative of Newark (which also is taking no chances) watched Zappalorti look for reptiles to make sure that no bog turtle was imported unnaturally, Zappalorti says he would never do such a thing.

In New Jersey, the bog turtle and the timber rattlesnake are classified endangered by state environmental agencies, and people seeking to block various construction projects in the state have found themselves possessed of sudden interest in herpetology and urgent need of Zappalorti.

Not everyone in West Milford thought highly of the township environmental search. One day a skeptic released a nonendangered box turtle in the township offices with "$5,000" painted on its back. Rumors flew that Zappalorti had been paid $10,000 and that a $5,000 snake was still loose in the offices.

Newark's attorney, Philip Elberg, is scornful of the bog turtle defense, and points out that Zappalorti was not called to testify at the first phase of the trail which ended recently. The judge is expected to render his verdict in February or March.

Zappalorti found no bog turtle or timber rattlesnakes, he said. "One area had all the things a bog turtle would need to survive," he added, rattling off a list of plants and water conditions that add up to bog turtle heaven."We also found a highly appropriate habitat for the timber rattlesnake," he said.

It is not clear from the law whether it is necessary to find an endangered species, or simply the habitat for one to block a proposed project.

Zappalorti is no newcomer to reptiles and amphibians. He worked 14 years for the Staten Island Zoo, 10 as the reptile keeper, before he started his Staten Island-based consulting business, two years ago.

He belongs to a new breed in the burgeoning American job category, the expert witness.

His search for endangered species has taken him to many parts of New Jersey and to Pennsylvania and North Carolina as well in the last two years.

There is much wilderness left in New Jersey, so a number of species are now found only in a few places. One species is the Pine Barrens tree frog which takes its name from the wilderness area in southern New Jersey.

Ocean County hired Zappalorti to assess whether there would be any impact on the tree frog from a proposed nuclear reactor at the edge of the Pine Barrens that was to be cooled by sea water.

The crystallized salt residue was to be blown out of the reactor and, depending on the wind, might land anywhere within a 10-mile radius.

Zappalorti said he concluded the salt would affect the frogs and proposed a complex one-year study of tree frogs to measure the potential damage.

The reactor has not been built, but that probably has less to do with tree frogs than with the troubles its proposeer, Jersey Central Light and Power, ran into as a partner in the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania.

To illustrate that he does not always find evidence that hampers a project, Zappalorti told of a 20-day field survey he made in Middlesex County on the site of a proposed sewer line. He found no habitat suitable for bog turtles, tree frogs or any other of New Jersey's threatened. He gave the sewer developers a green light.

The feud between Newark and West Milford results from the odd fact that Newark owns much of the township. The land is one of the principal watersheds feeding Newark's water system. In recent times, there have been battles over taxes almost every year. The city pays about 9 percent of West Milford's tax assessments.

Some in Newark and West Milford who are unsympathetic to the township's effort, argue that West Milford is discriminating in trying to block Newark's plans while permitting development on other parcels of land by private developers.

"They aren't trying to protect themselves from growth. They're trying to protect themselves from Newark," said one man who did not want to be quoted by name.

It has frightened them into their newfound affection for turtles and snakes, this argument goes.

Newark bought its watershed land early in this century and the financially troubled city's rural holdings helped provide West Milford's 22,000 people with the uncrowded, rural character they prize. As Zappalorti can testify, the land also could make a nice home for bog turtles and timber rattlesnakes.