The availability of public genomic resources can greatly assist biodiversity assessment, conservation, and restoration efforts by providing evidence for scientifically informed management decisions. Here we survey the main approaches and applications in biodiversity and conservation genomics, considering practical factors, such as cost, time, prerequisite skills, and current shortcomings of applications. Most approaches perform best in combination with reference genomes from the target species or closely related species. We review case studies to illustrate how reference genomes can facilitate biodiversity research and conservation across the tree of life. We conclude that the time is ripe to view reference genomes as fundamental resources and to integrate their use as a best practice in conservation genomics.