It’s fair to say that visitors to Lettuce Lake Conservation Park, at 6920 E. Fletcher Ave., in Hillsborough County, enjoy myriad aspects of its offerings.
Some like to hike.
Others, to watch birds.
Some are there to check out the native plants and flowers.
Still others find pleasure in climbing to the top of the observation tower to gaze at the scenic views.
Families go there to picnic.
School children take field trips there, to learn.
Some visitors enjoy a stroll, or jog, along the 1.25-mile paved trail.
These are the kinds of things that Joel Jackson envisioned when he sat down to design the park, which marked its 40th year of operations in October.
“I had three objectives, when I designed this park,” Jackson said, in a recent interview.
“One, was to make it an interesting and enjoyable place to come visit and experience nature.
“No. 2, was environmental education.
“And three, (was to preserve it) for future generations,” Jackson said.
He started planning the conservation park, in northeast Hillsborough County, from scratch.
“There was no park here at all. It was just a piece of land. So, I had a blank slate here, which was very exciting to me,” Jackson said.
Jackson paid attention to every detail: How the land would drain, where the parking should go, the amenities that would appeal to people of different ages and with diverse interests.
He wanted to be sure this was a true nature park. The paths should meander. The parking lots should be small, situated in different spots around the landscape.
Indeed, it is a nature park.
The Hillsborough River runs through it, and more than half of its acreage lies in the natural flood plain, which consists of a hardwood swamp forest.
The rest of the park features hardwood hammocks and pine flatwoods plant communities.
There are wooded picnic areas and playgrounds, a paved 1.5-mile exercise trail and a 3,500-foot boardwalk, with an observation tower.
Originally, the park called for 117 acres.
Jackson said that was too small, so he secured additional funds that enabled the park size to be doubled.
The funding source for that land also required it to be conserved, in perpetuity.
“This land, for hundreds of years, should still be here,” Jackson said.
The design of Lettuce Lake Conservation Park is just one of many contributions Jackson made during his career, which included stints with the City of Tampa and Hillsborough County.
He was honored on Aug. 31, in a special ceremony, where the nature center at Lettuce Lake Park was renamed the Joel E. Jackson Nature Center.
Hillsborough County Administrator Bonnie Wise hosted the celebration, which included remarks from Jack Berlin, of the parks and conservation board, and from Hillsborough County commissioners Harry Cohen and Mariella Smith.
Their comments were recorded in audio files by Hillsborough County staff, provided at the request of The Laker/Lutz News.
“His accomplishments are a testament to his unwavering service to Hillsborough County, its residents and especially, its natural resources,” Wise said, during the ceremony.
Berlin told those gathered: “It would take hours to go over this man’s legacy. “
Even now, Berlin said: “He volunteers more hours than I do. Still, he wows me with his vision.
“What he’s done for Hillsborough County conservation and the regional parks, and everything he’s done — is permanent. It will be here for our kids, our grandkids, our grandkids’ grandkids,” Berlin said.
Commissioner Cohen said he became acquainted with Lettuce Lake Conservation Park when he joined the county’s hiking spree last year.
“As a result, I went from park to park on the different hikes. One Sunday afternoon, I came out here to Lettuce Lake Park, and I have to tell you, I was blown away.
“I had never been here before and I started coming back. And, I didn’t end up finishing the hiking spree mainly because I just kept coming back to Lettuce Lake Park, over and over and over again,” Cohen said.
He described the park’s many attributes, including its abundant wildlife.
“You can get a close look at some of the area’s most striking birds, the reptiles, mammals and insects, as well as colorful flowers and plants,” Cohen said.
“You can attend a birding walk, hosted by the Tampa Audubon Society, or a native plant tour, led by the Suncoast Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society,” Cohen added.
The nature center, which now bears Jackson’s name, offers visitors a chance to learn about all of the flora and fauna.
“This center is a fantastic place to take children to show them the importance of the environment and just to have fun,” Cohen said
Jackson’s vision has left a lasting mark
Commissioner Smith lavished praise upon Jackson’s many contributions to the region’s quality of life.
“It’s a day of celebration for someone who has dedicated his life to our county’s parks and preserves, and then has continued volunteering, even in retirement, to protecting our environment and helping people enjoy our natural resources.
“Mr. Jackson has been an influential and distinguished leader of the Hillsborough County Conservation movement since 1969, when he became a founding member of Save Our Bay. This group was formed to prevent the proposed dredging and filling of nearly 2,000 acres along the Upper Tampa Bay shoreline.
“That Save Our Bay group kickstarted the local environmental movement that gave birth to our Agency on Bay Management and went on to galvanize efforts to protect Tampa Bay, and our wetlands and natural resources.
“In the 1970s, Mr. Jackson became a parks and recreation planner for the City of Tampa. After several years in this role, he was hired by Hillsborough County to become our parks planning section manager, which was a tremendous gain for our county.
“Ten years before we had an ELAPP (Environmental Lands and Acquisition Protection Program) to preserve our environmental lands, this county had a parks bond program. Joel Jackson oversaw that program, and under his very wise stewardship, we gained several large, beautiful parks that preserve natural areas — keeping what was special and unique about each place, while providing access and facilities to the public to enjoy them.
“Between 1977 and 1983, Mr. Jackson managed that $10 million parks bond program. You could do a lot with $10 million back then.
“It established three new natural resource bay parks, Upper Tampa Bay Park, Lettuce Lake (Conservation) Park and Alderman’s Ford (Nature Preserve) and renovated several others, including E.G. Simmons (Conservation Park), Eureka Springs (Conservation Park) and Edward Medard (Conservation) Park, and these are all natural wonders. They’re spread throughout the county and each one is a gem, wonderfully well-planned by Joel Jackson, to make the most of its own special characteristics and to share these marvelous places with the public.
“During this time, it became clear to Mr. Jackson that public land acquisition was one of the few ways to ensure long-term protection of our valuable, natural lands.
“His efforts to preserve the 1,500-acre Bower tract from development in the early 1980s played a key role in the creation of Hillsborough County’s Environmental Lands and Acquisition and Protection Program, that’s ELAPP.”
The ELAPP program became a model for the entire state of Florida, she said.
“Mr. Jackson, congratulations. Your name is synonymous with our beautiful parks and conservation lands, and renaming this nature center here at Lettuce Lake is a perfect tribute to you that will certainly inspire others throughout the years,” Smith said.
Jackson was clearly moved by the outpouring of appreciation of his work, and by the people who showed up to honor him.
“I’m really overwhelmed today,” he said at the event.
In a later interview, he said, he is touched by the nature center being renamed in his honor, as well as by the ceremony and accolades.
“I’m thrilled with it,” Jackson said. “I didn’t ask for this, but I certainly appreciate it, and Barbara (his wife of 53 years) and I, will cherish it for the rest of our lives.”
About Lettuce Lake Conservation Park
What: Lettuce Lake Conservation Park, a 240-acre park operated by Hillsborough County
Where: 6920 E. Fletcher Ave., just outside the Tampa city limits, between Interstate 275 and the University of South Florida
Cost: Admission is $2 per vehicle; up to eight people per vehicle.
When: The park is open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., in the spring and summer; 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., in the fall and winter.
Details: Lettuce Lake Conservation Park is one of Hillsborough’s most visited parks. The Hillsborough River runs through it, and more than half of the park’s property lies in the natural flood plain of the river, consisting of a hardwood swamp forest.
The rest of the park consists of hardwood hammocks and pine flatwoods plant communities.
The park features wooded picnic areas and playgrounds, a 1.25-mile paved exercise trail and 3,500-foot boardwalk with an observation tower.
Canoe and kayaks rentals are available.
Info: Call 813-987-6204.
Published November 02, 2022