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On the Finding of 'Human Remains' in the Dunes 

click to enlarge Manila Dunes


Manila Dunes

As I write this on a Sunday night, more than 48 hours have elapsed since the sheriff's office "received a call regarding human remains found by beachgoers in the area of the Manila Dunes" about a half-mile from my house. I learned about it the next morning when my county supervisor texted that a body had been found in an encampment near my dune-adjacent neighborhood. A press release would be forthcoming. Sure enough, the press release arrived on local media outlets around noon, noting that "the unidentified male is believed to have died under suspicious circumstances. The cause and manner of death remain under investigation." 

With little official information to go on, neighbors relied on each other to figure out what might have happened and how concerned we should be about those "suspicious circumstances." When I called the sheriff's office in hopes of finding out more, I was told they didn't think safety was an issue, to just give them a call if anyone sees anything. My friend down the way reported the scanner traffic log item on the matter refers to deputies responding to the 1600 block of Peninsula Drive. This is the main trail through the dunes to the beach and used by most people who come out to walk their dog or ride their horse. It starts between Redwood Coast Montessori's classrooms and the school's playground. The trail at the south end of the road is the one that leads more directly into the forest and the encampments within. 

We've all known about the increase in people setting up camps in the dune forest and hollows, some complete with shacks and wind-generated electricity. We've seen the fires, the trash, the beach pines and Doug fir branches cut down, the new spurs off the main hiking trail, the dune hollows made into homesteads. Rarely have I run into any of the people making homes on what is public land (all originally stolen from the Wiyot, I should note) managed by our local community services district. Except the word "managing" implies the resources to do so, which, like adequate housing, do not exist. 

The general consensus among the neighbors I talk to is that everyone wants people to have safe shelter, that people have a right to shelter. People also generally agree that setting up camps in the dunes is not safe shelter, that carving out space in an area meant to be protected is not OK. I also see how the us/them divide grows as the ability to hike along public trails is compromised by what you might find: trash, human waste and now, tragically, human remains. Exercising the right to immerse oneself in the splendor of the dune forest appeals less when your trust in that experience as reasonably safe has been eroded. You definitely don't send your kids out to explore alone.

No one wants to be the bad guy, the uncompassionate jerk thumbing toward the dunes demanding the county "get those people out of there!" No one has a clear answer, either, including me. On Dec. 20, 2021, I sent an email to the community services district, the county, the sheriff's office and the Coastal Commission:

As an fyi — and you may know this already — an increasing number of people are creating living situations in the dune forest west of Manila. One dwelling even has a resourceful power supply in the form of a handmade windmill planted on top of the dune with extension cords running into the forest. 

I'm guessing that most Manila residents would, like me, prefer people to have better shelter and access to services instead of makeshift campgrounds in the dunes creating environmental impact and safety concerns, but I don't know what can be done considering a vast number of people lack proper shelter and are thus making their own where they can, which is often in our shared open spaces. 

ASK: I would like to know who is responsible for managing the property where people have built dwellings — can someone help with that? And if anyone has any suggestions for how to balance compassion for our fellow humans with a desire to protect sensitive habitat and ensure safe coastal recreation, I'd love to hear about it.

Everyone responded with acknowledgment that, yes, the situation is a problem, a pervasive one that repeats around the county despite the best efforts of government, law enforcement and community organizations. Everyone said more resources are needed for a true solution, but that attempts would be made. Over the past two years, other neighbors have raised the issue and been met with similar responses. Officials did address a camp that people had set up just over the property line of a resident whose backyard connects to open space. The nightly yelling from that site couldn't be ignored. But five minutes deeper into the forest? If anything, the situation's grown more locked in.  

But now a body's been found. Maybe that will mean something — it must mean a great deal to a family somewhere — or maybe the collective official response will be another press release or two, dutifully printed by local media, and we'll all go on uneasily co-existing out here, wishing for a compassionate path while avoiding the actual ones, hoping things don't get worse.

Jennifer Savage (she/her) has lived in Manila since 2002. This piece was first published on her website,

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Jennifer Savage

Jennifer Savage

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