Along with regular lumber, Ryan Lee's sawmill supplies wood from sunken cypress and pine logs, which fell into rivers while being rafted to ports and sawmills during the heyday of southern logging in the 1800s and early 1900s.

Retrieving the valuable logs from river bottoms has been illegal in Georgia since 1998 because of legal and environmental concerns, forcing suppliers such as Lee to buy them in other states.

But that is about to change.

Earlier this year, Georgia lawmakers approved legislation authorizing underwater logging for two years on parts of the Flint and Altamaha rivers, mostly in southern Georgia. If there are no problems with the logging, the law may be extended.

Environmentalists oppose the work, citing concerns for spawning fish, water quality and the legality of disposing of the logs -- which technically are state property -- at less than market value.

"This is the nursery grounds of the river. To create a business that benefits a few . . . certainly is not in the public interest," said Deborah Sheppard, executive director of Altamaha Riverkeeper, a Darien-based river watchdog group.

But Republican state Sen. Tommie Williams of Lyons said the law was patterned after Florida's program, which he called a "safe way to do this."

"I didn't see a reason, as long as we could protect the environment, that we shouldn't do it," Williams said.

An estimated 3 to 5 percent of the millions of logs sent down the rivers in the 19th and 20th centuries sank to the bottom before they reached their destination. These "deadheads," also known as "sinkers," remain well-preserved.

The wood that comes from the logs is revered for its tight grain and colors, such as blond, caramel and black. It is as much as 10 times more valuable than conventional wood.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources plans to begin accepting applications from loggers in early January. Applicants will have to post a $50,000 bond to cover damages, and they will need a $10,000 license. A proposal, not yet approved by the state Board of Natural Resources, would also require loggers to pay the state 20 percent of the logs' value to compensate for the loss of state-owned property.

Each license will cover only a two-mile stretch of a river. Deadhead logging will still be prohibited in areas where it could cause contamination, endanger fish or conflict with the rivers' recreational use.

Lee said his company, Riverwood Flooring and Paneling of Cairo, has been pushing the idea for nearly three years and already has a small barge with a winch to lift logs to the surface. But to attach cables to the logs, Lee will have to dive down to the logs in the Flint, which is infested with alligators, cottonmouth snakes and snapping turtles.

"This is not a job for the faint of heart," he said. "It's physically hard and demanding. Not everybody wants to do a job where every time you go to work, you could die. You're playing pixie sticks with 20-foot logs weighing 3,000 to 5,000 pounds."

Williams sees underwater logging as a way to pay tribute to the backbreaking work of the old loggers, including four generations of his family, who felled trees with axes and crosscut saws and hitched them to mules and oxen for hauling to the rivers.

"It's really a treasure," Williams said. "The quality of the wood and the uniqueness of the wood is something we can't duplicate. There really aren't any virgin forests left."

In Cairo, Ga., Ryan Lee leans against a section of an ancient cypress that was recovered from a river bottom. The wood is highly prized for its quality.