HAZARD, Ky. - For Lyle Snider, the view from Kentucky 80 is breathtaking, but not in a good way.
Parked on the side of the four-lane highway, the New Hampshire native watches a mountain disappear bit by bit at the hands of miners using explosives and giant earth-moving machines.
"It really does look like a moonscape," Snider says, gazing across a barren expanse of dirt and rock.
Mountaintop removal coal mining, which had largely been relegated to the Appalachian back country, has been edging closer to major highways because of a mining boom sparked by higher coal prices.
And that's created a sort of reverse ecotourism among people seeking to get their first up-close look at the much-debated practice. It's also provided a new opportunity for environmentalists to try to sway more people into opposing such mines.
"Disaster tourism" is the term used by the Rev. John Rausch, director of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, who says visitors are adding mountaintop removal sites to their travel itineraries, especially in places where they can watch and take photos from the security of their own cars.
Along with thousands of others who travel Kentucky 80 each day, Snider, who now lives in Hazard, watched as crews prepared a mountain for mining by cutting down all the trees. He has seen dust clouds rise into the sky when explosives were detonated just beneath the surface. He has watched giant bulldozers, dwarfed by even larger dump trucks, move the dirt and rock loosened by the blasts. And he has seen loaders in the distance scooping up chunks of freshly unearthed coal to be sent off to electric-generating plants across the country.
"Once people observe what is happening their jaws drop in disbelief," says Rausch, a Stanton priest who organizes tours to eastern Kentucky.
"You can't introduce people to Appalachia without addressing mountaintop removal," he says. "It is so large, so in your face. You can't overlook it."
Kentucky Tourism Commissioner Randy Fiveash says his agency doesn't promote tours to see mountaintop removal coal mines, but it doesn't discourage such visits.
"It's legal to do the kind of mining that they're doing, and if people want to come to watch that, then I think it kind of falls into the area of industrial tourism," Fiveash says.
Some people travel to Hazard and Pikeville to drive around highways in search of active mines. Others go for fly-overs sponsored by organizations such as the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, an anti-mining environmental group. It says it has taken more than 1,000 people on tours of mountaintop mines over the past five years, and 500 turned out for a single event two years ago to take plane rides over surface mines.
Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, says environmental groups are "stirring the emotional pot" by giving visitors a biased view of the coal industry. They do that, he says, by showing only active mining operations, never restored areas turned into grazing lands for cattle, horses, elk and deer.
"I agree, it looks bad while it's being mined," Caylor says. "But they don't see what it looks like when it's completed. It's beautiful on top of these mountains. The views are gorgeous."
In a rugged region with little level ground, Caylor says mountaintop removal also creates much-needed flat land for factories, airports, subdivisions, golf courses and baseball fields.
"To imply that we're flattening Appalachia is so untrue," Caylor says. "We're creating level land for Appalachia."
Jordan Fisher Smith, a California author, says his visit to eastern Kentucky in October was a wake-up call for him when he saw "deserts of fractured rocks" left behind after the mining companies pulled out.
"The coal companies say they're creating flat places for people, but I went on some of these so-called reclaimed areas," Smith says. "The only things that can grow in these places are the sorts of plants that county agriculture agents have been trying to spray and eliminate elsewhere."
If You Go...
KENTUCKIANS FOR THE COMMONWEALTH: http://www.kftc.org or (606) 878-2161. One-day "Mountain Witness Tours," open to the public, are held monthly, April-October.
CATHOLIC COMMITTEE OF APPALACHIA: The Rev. John Rausch organizes tours three or four times a year for religious and social welfare organizations, universities and other groups; (606) 663-0823.
KENTUCKY COAL ASSOCIATION: http://www.kentuckycoal.com.