On a clear day, you can see a hundred miles. The view stretches from this silent city of ancient rock castles across a rolling forest of pinon and juniper into a mountainous blue horizon.

But clear days are fewer now. In the past decade, immense coal-fired electric power plants have begun to appear around the "Golden Circle" of national parks, a crescent of desert wildlands between the Rockies and the Grand Canyon.

And today, as the energy future seems ever gloomier, it is here that the tradeoffs are most explicit. For underlying this glorious scenery are some of America's richest coal fields. With every new dragline and smokestack plume, the question is posed: energy or beauty?

To the nation's beleagured energy planners, coal is the strategic weapon in the cold war with the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. As the nuclear industry falters, domestic coal is touted as the most practical substitute for imported oil.

The most controversial coal developments in the nation are planned for this scenic country:

The Union Pacific Railroad and 13 other companies want to mine southern Utah's Kaiparowits plateau, the largest unexploited coal field in the nation, which is surrounded by national parks. The coal would be shipped to California and Japan.

A group of utilities proposes a huge strip mine near Alton, Utah, four miles from the majestic rock amphitheaters of Bryce Canyon National Park. The mine is part of the Allen-Warner Valley Energy System, which would include a 500-megawatt coalfired plant 17 miles from Zion National Park in Warner Valley, a 2,000-megawatt plant north of Las Vegas, and two coal slurry pipelines.

Long-range plans for the area foresee 21,300 megawatts of new capacity -- mostly coal, some nuclear; six coal gasification projects; a stripmine in the Henry Mountains four miles from Capitol Reef National Park, and expansion of a nearby power plant; a large coal mine in the Paria amphitheater near Bryce.

These plans are the latest escalation of what is already one of the environmental movement's lengthiest battles. It dates from the late-1960s protests against New Mexico's Four Corners plant, which still watts coal dust hundreds of miles over the Southwest. It reached a peak with the 1976 defeat of a proposed Kaiparowits plant, on the same site as the now-revived coal mine project.

In a few weeks, Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus, bowling to environmentalist protests, is expected to announce long-debated plant, Intermountain, which would be the largest coal-fired plant in the United States. Originally proposed for a site near Capitol Reef National Park, it will instead be built near Lynndyl in central Utah.

But with the Allen-Warner Valley Energy System already designated by the Interior Department as a "critical energy facility" under President Carter's orders to speed energy development, environmentalists are worried. They envision grids, 100-car coal trains, trailer parks, urban sprawl and swirling smoke around the area's eight national parks, 26 national monuments, three national recreation areas and 13 national forests.

"The irreplaceable heartland of the canyon country of the American Southwest should not be made a national sacrific area," says Gordon Anderson of Friends of the Earth (FOE).

FOE, joined by the Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club and several local ranchers, will petition the Interior Department in the next few weeks to have the Alton coalfield declared "unsuitable for mining." The petition will be the first major test of the 1977 strip mine control law's provision forbidding mining that would "adversely affect publicity owned park."

The National Park Service calls air pollution "the number one threat" to the parks. Park Service legislative director Peter Gove says that unless strict new regulations are adopted, visibility in areas such as the Grand Canyon could decrease from 200 miles to 12 miles.

"The consequence would be much like pulling a curtain across nature's stage," he said. "The spectacular performance of nature would be there -- but no one would see it."

Such predictions are dismissed as exaggarated emotionalism by southwestern businessmen and politicians. "We're not planning to rip up the country, like the old concept of industry as 'rape, ruin and run,'" said J. Leroy Balzer of Utah International Inc., sponsor of the Aton mine.

"Our commitment is stewardship of the land. The view from the park (Bryce Canyon) will be impaired for a few years, but the scars will be revegetated."

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) says, "The environmentalists want to stop everything, period, even though (these projects) could alleviate the energy crisis. We don't want to see the beauty go, but we want reasonable, balanced development."

Those are the familiar abstractions os so many environmental controversies. But this one is different. To see the canyon country, to fly over its windswept deserts and sculptured red plateaus, is to realize that more is at stake here. This is a landscape unique in the world -- a contention that neither side disputes.

At first glance, southern Utah might seem a wasteland. It is mostly empty -- few people, few trees, few roads. But it is a desert so rich in form and color, so violent in its contrasts, that it could hardly be called barren.

The mountain lion is at home here, among rattlesnakes, scorpions, lizards. Wild mustangs roam free. Coyotes, hawks, golden eagles exist almost undisturbed by man.

Some 650,000 tourists a year visit the "Pink Cliffs" of Bryce Canyon. The eroded rocks -- peach-colored, lavender, white, rust-red -- are piled in improbable shapes; lone sentinels, baroque cathedrals, surreal fortresses -- testimony to a billion years of geologic upheaval.

From Yovimpa Point, at 9,100 feet in a sweet-smelling spruce forest, Chief Ranger Thomas Henry points to a spot just beyond the sun-bathed pinnacles. "There," he said. "That's where the Alton mine would be.

"Bryce has some of the cleanest air in the United States. But it won't take much to lower its quality."

Environmentalists say the mine, which would produce 11 million tons of coal a year, would blanket the park with dust, deplete the scarce water supply for its slurry line and even, with blasting, topple Bryce's delicately balanced rock formations. The land, they say, is too dry to be reclaimed.

Balzer of Utah International said the dust would be "insignificant" -- no more than the natural dust that wind blows off the desert. The explosives would not disturb anything farther than 100 feet away, he said. Test plots show reclamation is feasible, he added.

The Warner Valley power plant fed by this Alton mine would lie 17 miles from the giant red cliffs of Zion National Park, west of Bryce. Preliminary studies indicate it probably won't violate the strict air quality standard for the park.

However, some residents of the nearby town of Kanab oppose the plant because it will use water from the Virgin River, in a part of the West where water is more precious than gold.It might also wipe out two endangered fish, the Woundfin minnow and the Virgin River chub -- nicknamed "Utah's snail darters" by politicians who fear they could be used to stop the project.

East of Bryce, the Kaiparowits Plateau, a massive tabletop, rises suddenly, jaggedly from the arid plain.Outcroppings of coal jut from its 50-mile-long cliffs. It is a desolate place, strangely beautiful unchanged since prehistoric time.

One hundred million tons of coal could be mined here a year, from 20 deep mines -- enough to stoke 33 powerplants, the Interior Department says. Every hour a 100-car coal train would arrive or depart from Last Chance Creek where the mines would connect.

The $1.7 billion project would mean a population increase of 164,000 in the two nearby counties, the Interior Department estimates. Some 7,000 people live here now.

The population boom resulting from so many energy projects is what environmentalists fear most. While some residents of this economically depressed area look forward to the day when their children can find jobs near home, others in these conservative Mormon communities worry about the crime, alcoholism, traffic, pollution and alienation that have characterized other energy boom towns.

Most of the energy -- whether raw coal or electric megawatts -- would be shipped across the mountains to California, where public opposition to polluting industries has prevented the construction of coal-fired and nuclear-powered plants in recent years. Southern Utah, Phoenix, Albuquerque are also growing rapidly and demanding more energy.

In the petition to stop the Alton mine, the Environmental Defense Fund will outline detailed alternatives, including conservation measures, solar, wind and cogeneration projects. A University of California study recently concluded that all of California's energy demands until 2025 could be met with renewable resources.

Meanwhile, environmentalists are pressing the Environmental Protection Agency to issue regulations requiring existing coal plants in the area to clean up. The new rules, required by the 1977 Clean Air Act, could cost utilities $100 million. Plants such as Four Corners, which daily spews out 406 tons of sulfur dioxide, 174 tons of dust and 249 tons of nitrogen oxides, are already fighting citizen efforts to clean them up.