LOS ANGELES, DEC. 27 -- Republican Gov.-elect Pete Wilson is winning praise from conservation groups for a key appointment and two decisions that they say appear to signal the seriousness of his campaign commitment to be an "environmental advocate" for California.

Wilson earlier this week named Douglas P. Wheeler, executive vice president of the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation Foundation, as California director of natural resources, a move hailed by state Sierra Club director Michael Paparian as "very positive."

Wheeler's appointment came on the heels of a Wilson decision to preserve the oldest California stand of redwoods in private hands and an earlier announcement that control of pesticides would be transferred from the California Department of Agriculture to a new state Environmental Protection Agency that he has promised to create.

California has been a trend-setting state in conservation since the early decades of the century and is often a fierce environmental battleground. In the November election, voters overwhelmingly rejected a wide-ranging environmental initiative known as "Big Green" that was opposed by Wilson and supported by his Democratic opponent, Dianne Feinstein.

But Wilson has said since the election that rejection of Big Green did not mean that Californians have turned their backs on the environment.

Last week Wilson made it known through his communications director, Otto Bos, that he would side with environmentalists who seek to preserve the Headwaters Forest in Northern California where the Pacific Lumber Co. seeks to log 564 acres of redwoods. The decision on the company's application will go before the state Board of Forestry two days after Wilson is sworn in as governor Jan. 7.

During the eight years of outgoing Gov. George Deukmejian's administration, environmental groups often accused the Board of Forestry of favoring the timber industry and challenged its decisions in court. Bos said that Wilson will send a letter to the board urging rejection of the Pacific Lumber Co. application.

This letter is likely to be persuasive. The nine members of the board serve staggered terms, but Wilson appointees would be in the majority by 1992, when the logging would begin if the application is approved.

The appointment of Wheeler, an attorney who served in the Interior Department from 1969-77 and later was national director of the Sierra Club, was particularly welcomed by environmentalists. Corey Brown, the general counsel for the California Planning and Conservation League, said that Wheeler "has a very good reputation {for} working closely with environmentalists and the private sector in managing our natural resources."

Wilson said the appointment showed that he would carry his campaign promise "to very vigorously pursue the preservation of our physical environment."

Wheeler called himself "a responsible activist." He said in an interview that the big issues in California are "the issues that are relevant nationally" and promised to focus on "protection of human health, maintenance of environmental quality and a sustainable economy."

While Wilson and his team anticipate some criticism from conservatives for his pro-environmental stance, they expect this will be offset by praise from business and industry if he follows through on another promise to streamline the state's overlapping environmental regulations through the new Environmental Protection Agency.

"We're absolutely counting on the support {of business} based on the premise that we're going to make their lives easier," said Loren Kaye, the incoming administration's director of policy development. Staff writer John Lancaster in Washington contributed to this report.